Demon, god, fish, monster, trophy, research specimen. More than any other marine animal, sharks take on an almost unlimited variety of personas in our world. So as much as Juliet Eilperin’s Demon Fish is about sharks, it’s also about humans; about our connection to — and perception of — a creature that has been around for more than 200 million years.
In this regard, one theme in this book that resonated with me was that of culture. Tradition is a powerful driver of human beliefs and actions, and storytelling is one of the many tools used to proliferate certain social activities across generations. The book begins with a look at the ancient practice of shark calling in Papua New Guinea, in which local men lure sharks to their boats by shaking rattles and splashing their paddles. On this island, sharks are seen as powerful creatures, with spiritual purpose; having the ability to catch one requires a lifetime of dedication and skill. Eilperin contrasts this deep-seated respect and admiration with how sharks are viewed by many western societies, where they’re still largely seen as terrifying man-eaters . . . or as the ultimate prize for a trophy hunter.
I agree with Eilperin’s view that this negative perception is largely tied to the film and book, Jaws. Since being released in 1974, the fictional tale has proliferated the notion that sharks are mindless killing machines (and that catching one is the ultimate show of bravado). Although it evolved much earlier and in a different capacity, the idea of killing a shark (or rather, eating one) is synonymous with power in China as well. However, as Eilperin describes in the book, shark fin soup is one of those luxury foods without any real purpose beyond that. Unlike all other delicacies, including bluefin tuna and foie gras, shark fin actually has no flavour; its presence in a meal is entirely symbolic. Unfortunately, over 70 million sharks are killed annually to support the shark fin industry.
In 2009, I visited the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town during the Rethink the Shark awareness campaign that Eilperin discusses near the end of the book. This initiative forced people to think not about the dangers posed by sharks, but instead about the lethality of common, everyday objects such as toasters and chairs. I found this type of storytelling powerful and effective: the images and video were amusing but they also conveyed an important message. South Africa is well known for a high number of shark attacks over the years and I was impressed that this aquarium in particular was taking a lead on trying to improve the public’s perception of sharks. This campaign, the movie Sharkwater, and other local outreach initiatives such as the work done by SharkTruth, are finally starting to make people realize that maybe we are actually the more dangerous species. Now, instead of fearing these incredible animals we are increasingly seeing them with wonder and respect. And it is this type of perception that may make all the difference in the longterm survival of these ancient fish.
Make sure you grab a copy of Demon Fish this month and get reading! As you go, we would love to hear your thoughts on this book, or any general experiences or ideas you have about sharks. Share your thoughts in the comments below. Learn more about the Vancouver Aquarium Book Club.
Blog post submitted by Laurenne Schiller, Ocean Wise research analyst and book club curator at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.