From the Publisher
“For this inclusive and important book, Eilperin traveled around the world to find people who study, fish for, dive with, venerate, or have been attacked by sharks . . . . [she] discusses many others who have brought sharks into human consciousness—Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and Jacques Cousteau; to this list, we must now add Eilperin herself.”
—Richard Ellis, The American Scholar
“More books probably have been written about sharks than about any other creatures that live in the sea, so when I opened this one I was skeptical: What could it possibly add? A great deal, it turns out . . . Eilperin circles the world in pursuit of sharks and the people who love and hate them . . . whether they are killers or protectors, she tells their stories with fairness and understanding. I forgot the time as I immersed myself in the world of sharks. Whether you’ve never read a book about sharks or have a shelf full of them, this is a book for you.”
—Callum Roberts, The Washington Post
“Eilperin investigates the greatest threats to sharks: the shark fin trade and the ecological and economic forces affecting shark populations . . . The book is certainly timely. And Demon Fish does the subject justice.”
—David McGuire, San Francisco Chronicle
“Poised to be one of the summer’s most compelling beach reads.”
—Rachel Syme, NPR.org
“In this wide-ranging natural history of shark-human relations, the author recounts frank interviews with an entertaining cast of scientists, fishermen, wholesalers, chefs, and eco-tour operators, all of whom have a stake in the survival of the oceans’ top predators. She also gets into the water with the sharks. For readers who like passionate investigative reporting.”
—Rick Roche, Booklist
“In this fascinating and meticulously reported book, Juliet Eilperin crisscrosses the globe, on the trail of one of the most mysterious creatures. She illuminates not only the hidden nature of the seas, but also the societies whose survival depend on them.”
—David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
“Hate, fear, envy, awe, worship. Of the many shark books, precious few explore the human-shark relationship. And none do with such style as Juliet Eilperin does in this fact-packed, fast-paced narrative. This is the shark book for the person who wants to understand both what sharks are, and what sharks mean. Bite into it.”
—Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World
Humans kill 73 million sharks to supply fins for soup and have depleted populations worldwide and disrupted ecosystem balance in various ocean environments. Eilperin, an environmental reporter for the Washington Post and a scuba diver, describes her travels throughout Asia, South Africa, and the United States in search of shark information and folklore. She tasted shark soup in China and found it bland. There is also illegal trade in sharks in demand by aquariums in casinos and resorts. The author provides a well-written overview of current and past attitudes toward sharks and discusses shark species, physiology, genetics, reproduction, evolution, navigation, and attacks on swimmers. Because sharks swim so fast and are hard to spot underwater, tracking them for scientific purposes is difficult and costly. VERDICT Eilperin's adventures will entertain general readers and high school and college students. For systematic treatment of shark behavior, size, and distribution of the various species, consider such works as Thomas B. Allen's The Shark Almanac or Doug Perrine's well-illustrated Sharks and Rays of the World.—Judith B. Barnett, Univ. of Rhode Island Lib., Kingston
Washington Postenvironmental reporter Eilperin (Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives, 2006) travels the globe to explore the complex relationship between sharks and humans, issuing a passionate call for the protection of these diverse and majestic creatures.
Sharks inspire fear, writes the author, but as many people know, it's largely groundless: "you are more likely to die from lightning, a bee sting, or an elephant's attack than from a shark's bite." Yet this fear, along with commercial pressures, is driving some species to extinction. Before we feared them, sharks played important religious roles in societies from the Mayan empire to communities in the Niger Delta region. Eilperin witnessed the modern-day practice of "shark calling," in which Papua New Guineans perform religious rituals and then catch sharks using lures and snares. (The practice is not wholly symbolic, as the meat is eaten and the fins sold.) Shark's fin soup is an important symbol of wealth in China; however, after eating it, Eilperin calls it "one of the greatest scams of all time, an emblem of status whose most essential ingredient adds nothing of material value to the end product." Nonetheless, shark populations are collapsing in part due to the commercial value of fins. Unfortunately, the author provides little clarity about which human activities (such as sport fishing and finning) have the most significant impacts on shark populations. Moreover, the booktreats sharks as too monolithic, doing little to explain which particular species face the gravest threats. But Eilperin is convincing in her argument that many species will go extinct if current practices continue. She is optimistic about certain alternatives, like the shark-watching expeditions she saw in a Mexican village, where former fisherman now make their living guiding eco-tourists. With alternatives like this and the possibility of international agreements, Eilperin concludes that all hope is not lost for the shark.
A general but solid primer on the state of sharks today and a plea for their protection.
Eilperin is an unobtrusive and balanced guide. She has a deft hand with cameo descriptions of the people she meets on her travels…Whether they are killers or protectors, she tells their stories with fairness and understanding. I forgot the time as I immersed myself in the world of sharks. Whether you've never read a book about sharks or have a shelf full of them, this is a book for you.
The Washington Post
Read an Excerpt
Each kind of auctioneer has a style. There’s the robust cattle auctioneer, who spits out numbers in a bold, singsong voice that determines where animals go to be bred or slaughtered; the elegant estate auctioneer, whose rich, mellifluous tone entices art and furniture collectors to fork over their savings; and then there’s Charlie Lim.
A spectacled, wiry man in his early fifties, Lim sports a short-sleeved, button-down shirt and a modified bowl cut that lets his straight black bangs fall neatly across his forehead. Standing in front of the sort of shiny whiteboards that appear in classrooms and corporate conference rooms across the globe, he doesn’t talk much as he auctions off his wares; instead, he shakes an abacus in short, regular bursts. Much of the time, the clicking of the beads is the loudest sound in the room.
Lim is a shark fin trader. More precisely, he’s the secretary of Hong Kong’s Sharkfin and Marine Products Association. And at the moment he’s standing in a nondescript auction house whose spare white decor evokes a Chelsea art gallery. But when the auction begins, the buyers crowd around Lim in a semicircle, jostling for a look at the gray triangular fi ns splayed across the floor. A shark fin auction is as fast as it is secretive. By the time Lim takes his position at the front of the room, one of his assistants has already marked on the board behind him—in a bright red felt-tipped pin—which sorts of fins are being auctioned in any given lot. As soon as men dump the contents of a burlap bag on the floor, the bidding begins: any interested buyer must approach Lim and punch his suggested price into a single device that only the auctioneer and his assistant can see. The bidders must make a calculated guess about what price will prevail, rather than compete with each other openly for a given bag of fins. Within two minutes the lot is sold, and the winning price per kilo is duly noted on the board. Lim’s assistants sweep the pile back into its bag, using a dustpan to gather any errant fins that might have escaped to the side. Another bag—containing the first dorsal, pectorals, and lower lobe of the caudal fins that are most valuable—is dumped on the floor, and the cycle begins again.
The group of men gathered here—and it’s all men—are experienced traders who hear about these auctions through word of mouth. There is no downtime, no chitchat; in fact, there aren’t even chairs for them to sit on during the auction. Given the quick pace of shark fin sales, they must be prepared to bid without hesitation. The bidders show no emotion during the entire process: this isn’t fine art they plan to furnish their homes with, or livestock they will devote months to raising. It is a heap of desiccated objects they will seek to transfer to someone else as soon as they acquire it.
Lim does make a few remarks in Cantonese about the fins before his feet, but it’s not the sort of chatter most auctioneers use to boost the price of a given lot. He’s not saying, “Take a look at these gray beauties!” or anything to that effect. Sometimes he indicates the species that’s collected in a given bag: blacktip, hammerhead, or blue shark. But a shark fin auction is not really about salesmanship. It’s about moving product.
Some rare metals and stones have carried a high market price for centuries. Basic foodstuffs, including several fish species, have also held a quantifiable commercial value over time. The shark trade, however, is a more recent arrival to the world scene. Unlike many other fish, such as salmon or red snapper, for example, shark does not derive its value from its taste or nutritional worth. In fact, there’s ample evidence that the high levels of toxins sharks accumulate in their bodies pose a potential threat to humans, just as tuna does. While many consumers—especially in China—view shark meat and fins as nutritious, sharks are likely to contain high levels of mercury because they are large, slow- growing fish that consume other fish as their prey, which allows mercury to build up in their muscle tissues. WildAid, an environmental group that crusades against shark fin trafficking, commissioned a study by the Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technological Research in 2001 that found shark fins in Bangkok’s markets contain mercury concentrations up to forty- two times above the safe limit for human health.
The market for sharks is based more on the animals’ mystique than anything else. In the same way that De Beers has convinced young men across the globe that women will be more likely to accept their marriage proposal if it comes with a diamond ring, men like Lim have managed to persuade Asian consumers that the very presence of stringy shark fin cartilage in their soup speaks to their own social status. Other marketers have different pitches, bottling sharks’ mysterious promise in a range of salves. One U.S. entrepreneur has made a decent amount of money peddling the line that sharks cure cancer, while other companies are in the business of advertising shark oil’s anti- aging properties. None of these appeals are based on science, but they tap into our long- held beliefs about the power of an animal that can consume us. And nowhere do they resonate more strongly than in Asia, where an ever-expanding group of consumers is seeking new ways to demonstrate its upwardly mobile status.