Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, by Juliet Eilperin. Pantheon. 295 pages. $27.
Reviewed by Michael Buozis
In Hong Kong, Charlie Lim oversees auctions of nearly half of the world's supply of shark fins in nondescript buildings in fast and secretive sales, nothing like the rapid-fire but friendly livestock auctions you see in Werner Herzog's classic documentary How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck. In a Princeton mansion, Peter Benchley's widow sits in an office papered with letters from groupies and shark paranoids. In Miami Beach, Mark Quartiano, a dead ringer for Michael McDonald, captains charter boats for Irish bachelor parties, hooking endangered hammerheads, so pasty-skinned junior partners and finance professionals can reel in a trophy story to tell their brides back home. In Fort Myers, the Are You Man Enough? Shark Challenge attracts the same muscleheads and millionaires as big-game safaris in Africa.
The motley crew of shark hunters in Juliet Eilperin's Demon Fish does not stop there. Damien Hirst kills two tiger sharks for his mixed-media piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which fetches $8 million at auction. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church plays host to a rogue minister who enlists his troubled devotees in an illegal shark fishing ring for the aquarium trade. I. William Lane, a biochemist, exploits findings that angiogenesis in sharks prevents them from developing cancer in his book Sharks Don't Get Cancer: How Shark Cartilage Could Save Your Life, and its equally galling sequel Sharks Still Don't Get Cancer.
But Eilperin manages to counterbalance these sinister oddities with an equally vexing cast of heroes. Selam Karasimbe, the world-famous shark caller, practices a culturally significant and ecologically sustainable form of artisanal fishing in the waters of Papua, New Guinea. Ellen Pikitch, director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, lassoes sharks at Glover's Reef in the western Caribbean. Max Ammer, a Dutchman who has been mistaken for a local deity, develops a commercially viable form of conservation in the rich reefs of Raja Ampat. In Brussels, Sonja Fordham, an American proud of being mistaken by the Belgians for an Englishwoman, lobbies the E.U. bodies that regulate Europe's threatened fisheries.
Eilperin's remarkable feat in Demon Fish is not just to tell us about these strange real-life characters, but to live with them and experience a bit of their relationship with sharks. She boards Mark Quartiano's boat and watches as tourists reel in endangered fish. She walks the streets of Hong Kong's dried fish district, and even samples shark fin soup at Tanyoto restaurant. She swims with sharks in a group dive with scientists and even lassoes a shark with Pikitch. Her travels are extensive and exotic and give more of a feel for the people who interact with sharks than for the lives of sharks themselves. The hidden world she finds is not of sharks, but of men and women and whole cultures obsessed with the beasts. Eilperin is no squeamish conservationist, and she's never afraid to get her hands dirty in pursuit of clarity and the real details of her subjects' worlds.
The most endearing people Eilperin encounters are not the scientists who've devoted their professional lives to these animals. Three students in Hong Kong, Allen To, Shadow Sin, and Vivian Lam, advocate for sharks, not only in their academic communities, but also in their social and family lives, where they are expected to view shark fin soup as a sign of wealth, a necessary symbol in a culture dictated largely by ceremony. To, Sin, and Lam are only afforded a few paragraphs in Eilperin's narrative, yet they represent the shark's one true hope: a sea change of personal sentiment toward animals, as opposed to wider regulation of fisheries. Eilperin makes it clear that the whole world will never agree on the value of sharks, so the demand must be removed for the supply to become worthless and unattractive to fishermen.
While Eilperin pits the ecologists and lobbyists directly against the thoughtless shark hunters, she fails to propose any way of living sensitively as a consumer of seafood. She lists the devastating ecological impact of most commercially caught fish and never brings up the possibility of sustainable practices in seafood harvest. Her narrative hiccups in the morass of shady aquarium shark traders and federal officials, which might be an interesting sidetrack but can't compare in scope to commercial depletion of shark populations. Still, she brings us around the planet, and back again, in pursuit of a clear picture of the shark's precarious position in a human world.
As Kennedy Warne explores in "The Seas of Arabia" in the March issue of National Geographic, the people of the Arabian Sea have recently joined the rest of the world in losing their connection to their environment. An Omani businessman tells Warne, "We have lost the thirst for the sea that can only be quenched by going to the sea." Both Eilperin and Warne tell stories of people losing an intimate knowledge of the world around them. As the global marketplace increases our hunger and thirst for products of the land and sea, the greatest wines of Italy and the rarest fish of the North Sea are at our fingertips at all times. But we've lost something more valuable, the ability to feel the pulse of the Earth, to understand the delicate balance between sustainable practices and the tipping point beyond which we cannot return.
Eilperin's Demon Fish manages to tell of the plight of the world's sharks without becoming too preachy. When she wades through the thick and shadowed world of shark trading, and the energized fight for the survival of threatened species, we see the opacity of the situation. She does not pretend to have any easy answers and always casts an understanding eye on the actions of those who make their living hunting sharks. Her portrayals, which could so easily devolve into caricature, never do. In the eloquent words of Katherine Boo, "When I settle into a place, listening and watching, I don't try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives." Whether they are the lives of men or sharks, it is always better to know more.