In Defense of the Demon Fish

We kill an estimated 23 to 76 million sharks each year, almost entirely for the sake of shark fin soup, which has recently boomed in popularity. Right now the California State Senate is considering a bill, AB 376, that would end the fin trade there.
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Before journalist Juliet Eilperin, the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post, first swam in the Caribbean with a large school of good-sized sharks, she jotted down a list of why she would survive:

  1. All the biologists on this trip have an interest in keeping me alive, since they’ll never get their message out if I die here and fail to publish my work.
  2. I’m among the skinniest folks on this outing, so surely I’m less appetizing than the chunkier divers.
  3. As long as I act as if I know what I’m doing, and don’t deliberately pick fights with these hulking animals, they’ll leave me alone.

Her third rationale is probably the most scientific. But not only did Eilperin enjoy her swim, she became inspired to research and tell the larger tale of sharks in her book Demon Fish, just released this week. Wandering the world in search of “where humans mingle with sharks” took her beyond the sea to places like the street markets of Hong Kong and a genetic lab in Fort Lauderdale. On her journey, she discovered that sharks aren’t demons, though they “have dominated the human psyche for millennia, long before Jaws hit American movie screens in 1975.” Rather, it’s humans that now haunt sharks, aided by technology.

The fact is we kill an estimated 23 to 76 million sharks each year, almost entirely for the sake of shark fin soup, which is thought to be a delicacy in Chinese culture and has recently boomed in popularity. As Eilperin describes, however, neither finding and killing a shark, nor purchasing a few spoonfuls, truly harnesses its power and mystery. That’s myth, and even worse, all but the literal tip is wasted: The rest of a shark’s body is simply cast back to the ocean unused, and often still alive. As a result, up to a third of shark species now faces extinction.

But we haunt sharks in more ways than one, as Eilperin explains. Now we can track sharks using satellites, which has allowed us to locate the area of the Pacific between Baja California and Hawaii where great white sharks congregate, for example. Science also has revealed that these prehistoric predators are physiologically astounding, so much so that today some of our technology—everything from Speedo suits to robots—is being modeled after their efficient design, many millions of years old. Meanwhile, DNA analysis has allowed us to identify the species of the thousands of anonymous fins unloaded onto the wharves of the world’s cities.

Like many, Eilperin believes we should get to know sharks much better. “Sharks, and their surroundings, merit as much exploration as the moon, but we only devote a fraction of the same resources to them,” she writes in her introduction to Demon Fish. “Not for reasons of conquest, or even because our fate is in part linked to theirs. Sharks are worth understanding in their own right, a source of revelations about a foreign world that abuts ours.” She also notes that Earth’s surface is two-thirds ocean, but just half of 1 percent of it is protected.

A good, long stretch of this world abuts California, and right now its State Senate is considering a bill, AB 376, that would end the fin trade there, following a precedent set by Washington and Hawaii. It passed the State Assembly already, with flying colors. But if you live in California, take action today (or call your State Senator) to show your support of the bill, which would help curb the fin trade in international waters, since California is a gateway for its distribution. Sharks don’t deserve to be demonized. They don’t deserve to be made into soup. The more we discover and learn about them, the more extraordinary they are.

This post was first published on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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