Demon Fish: overexploited oceans and the loss of their top predators

In eleventh grade, during a unit on public speaking in English class, I gave a brief speech on sharks. I had, by that time, been enamored with sharks for the better part of a decade and planned to go to college to become a marine biologist. I concluded my speech with a plea for their protection. “Sharks have more to fear from us than we have to fear from them,” I said.

My teacher didn’t buy it. After all, she’d seen Jaws—hadn’t everybody?—and she didn’t believe that sharks had anything at all to fear from us.

I wish I’d had Juliet Eilperin’s book Demon Fish to offer as a rebuttal.

Of course, I delivered that speech in the spring of 1986. Eilperin’s book came out last June. It was the most depressing book I read all summer.

Demon Fish is a tale of woe. If you want to be disheartened by the overexploitation of our oceans, this’ll do it for you in no time. At least Four Fish, which explores the collapse of the ocean’s fisheries, held up the possibility that aquaculture might be able to save the day if someone gets on the stick. Demon Fish just broke my heart.

“Plenty of evidence now exists that if we curb our worst excesses—overfishing, trawling, and polluting—when it comes to the sea, we can give it at least a chance of resisting the broader environmental threats that are well underway, such as climate change,” Eilperin writes. “While it’s impossible to restore the entire sea to health, protecting the most ecologically rich areas will produce diverse pockets of the sea in which a range of creatures and plants can thrive. And sharks represent an essential part of the mix.”

Sharks are about as close to perfection as nature has ever produced. That’s one thing Jaws was spot-on about: “It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.” Sharks are so well-adapted to where they live and what they do that they’ve been around, as we know them, for hundreds of millions of years. They predate the dinosaurs.

“The fact that sharks have so many ways of existing in the world underscores how much they convey about the planet,” Eilperin writes.

The idea of natural perfection is, I think, what grabbed my imagination—that and the fact that sharks represent the unknown and the unknowable. As a kid, anything that fit those criteria carried a lot of cache with me. Sharks lived in an environment totally alien to us, and they just seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and when they did, they were these things of amazing power and beauty.

“Sharks’ power over us has always stemmed from the fact that they are largely unseen,” Eilperin writes. “They can strike at any time and can disappear just as easily as they can arrive at the surface.”

Sharks are far from the relentless killing machines pop culture has conditioned us to think they are, though. That doesn’t seem to stop people from behaving as if it’s open season on sharks all the time, though. “For Westerners who had largely been shielded from sharks for centuries, these animals suddenly emerged as an unseen threat that could hurt them without warning, and this fear only grew as ocean exploration intensified,” Eilperin writes.

Demon Fish chronicles all the different ways we assault shark populations and all the different motives we have for doing it. It’s less of a biological study of sharks than it’s a sociological study about their cultural significances. She speaks with fishermen, scientists, restaurateurs, ecotourism guides, surfers…people who love sharks and people who love to hate them—and people who love to eat them, too. We are, Eilperin discovers, far more closely tied to sharks than we might ever realize or admit.

…which still doesn’t prevent us from exploiting them.

Shark fin soup is, far and away, the largest culprit. As Eilperin discovers, though, the entire shark fin soup industry is a complete sham, built not on tasty shark morsels but on status. The translucent noodle-like slivers of shark fin in the soup have hardly any taste at all.

To get fins for the soup, fishermen engage in a practice called “finning,” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like it is. They catch sharks, cut off the dorsal and pectoral fins, and throw the rest of the shark, usually still alive, back into the water. If it sounds disgusting and wasteful, it is.

Long-line fishing, sport fishing, gill-net fishing—it all adds up. To this day, I refuse to eat mako shark steaks, which I used to absolutely love, because I can’t justify supporting a fishery that is pushing the species toward extinction.

“This is why sharks are so vulnerable to human predation,” Eilperin explains: “while they are adept at devising different ways to produce their offspring, they simply don’t generate enough young on a regular basis to withstand a sustained assault from fishing.”

Eilperin offers scientific data to help paint her picture, but part of the problem is that little data exists. The ocean itself remains a vast unexplored black hole of information, so it’s little wonder that little data on shark populations exist. Scientist lack even the most basic information like how many sharks there are in any given species, how long they live, and how they reproduce. Catch data shows that numbers have been falling off at precipitous rates, though.

Adding to the problem is the fact that most people assume the ocean is so big that there’s no way humans could possibly do it any real harm. It’s so big, we’ll never run out of fish. It’s a resource, not an ecosystem. It’s monolithic, so it can’t possibly be fragile and finite.

I shudder to think that these magnificent animals are at the mercy of such small minds.

Eilperin proves to be a storyteller up to the task of telling this depressing yet fascinating story. It’s well-researched, well-written science and well-told narrative.

Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks is a hard story to live with because, quite literally, the world’s oceans are at stake and most people don’t even know it. And if they did, they wouldn’t believe it. The sharks’ hidden world might be unpopulated sooner than anyone realizes. Sharks have survived for hundreds of millions of years—what does it say if they are unable to survive us?

1 reply »

  1. I love sharks and all your points are very much true. Sharks are very smart creatures and need to be protected from us humans as much as possible. People think I’m crazy for loveing them but the way i see it humans’ are the blood hungry, killing beasts’.