Squaring Off

Prey or Predator?

Juliet Eilperin Makes the Case for Making Peace with Sharks

In Squaring Off, Zócalo invites authors into the public square to answer five probing questions about the essence of their books. For this round, we pose questions to Juliet Eilperin, author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.

Sharks, more so than any other living creature, make humans feel like prey; hence our morbid fascination with the terrifying but graceful predator of the seas. Eilperin, a national environmental reporter for the Washington Post, argues that this primal and cultural fear of sharks is misplaced; it is us humans who are truly the sharks’ predator, and the long-term health of our planet and its oceans requires man and shark to bury the hatchet once and for all.

1) I first want to establish my credentials here to take you on: I watched Jaws in El Paso, Texas, when I was nine. And, as a result, I still make sure that whenever I am swimming on a beach, there is someone – you know, shark bait – a bit farther out than I am. Yet in your book, you argue that a shark-less ocean would be a bad thing. Um, did you not see the movie? Do I need to play the soundtrack?

Yeah, we’ve all heard John Williams’ scary music, and I can’t deny that it sometimes runs through my head when I enter the ocean. That said, sharks perform a few key functions in the sea that we can’t ignore. As the ocean’s top predator, they keep mid-level predators in check, so if we wipe them out, it will disrupt the natural balance of the food chain. And from a more selfish perspective, we’re still exploring what sort of innovations sharks might inspire. This could range from a surface coating fashioned along the lines of sharks’ denticles, which could speed the movement of ships, to a more efficient battery modeled on sharks’ electro-reception.

2) I must commend you for swimming among sharks as you reported your book, even as your guides admonished you to exercise peripheral vision. Yikes, I probably would have taken a more ivory tower approach on this one. But back to this food chain issue: I am still a bit tempted to root for the poor “mid-level predators” we’re keeping in check. Are we talking cuddly seals here?

Ahem. Yes, along with other less glamorous creatures as well, like cownose rays. But it’s worth noting that sometimes sharks keep the ecosystem healthy through sheer intimidation: the tiger sharks in Shark Bay, Australia, scare large herbivores such as sea turtles and dugongs so these species shift their distribution according to the season, keeping the bay’s seagrass habitat from being overgrazed. So that’s a nonlethal way in which sharks can perform a valuable public service.

3) I had no idea until reading your book that sharks predate dinosaurs. And yet they may not survive us, is that right? How dire a situation do these majestic predators face, and is it all on account of Asian demand for shark fin soup?

It’s true, sharks have been around for nearly 400 million years, and now they’re in danger of disappearing altogether. While it’s difficult to get precise figures, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates as many as one-third of all shark species face the threat of extinction. The demand for shark’s fin soup is a major reason why shark populations are declining: scientists say between 26 and 73 million sharks a year are killed just for their fins. But commercial fishing vessels also catch millions of sharks accidentally when they’re trolling for tuna and swordfish, since their hooks and nets make no distinction between these fish. And on top of all that, the recreational catch of sharks is a factor: in the U.S. it totals about 200,000 sharks a year.

4) In the course of researching your book while covering politics for the Washington Post, you managed to get presidential candidate John McCain to go against his top advisers and take a pro-shark-except-when-they-eat-people position. As we all know, that may have cost him the election. Is the current administration doing all it can to preserve the world’s dwindling shark population?

It was a bold move by McCain, and we all know how many coastal states he lost in 2008. Late last year, President Obama signed a shark conservation law that requires fishing vessels to land sharks on U.S. soil with their fins attached, which aims to cut down on the shark fin trade since it’s a lot cheaper to just slice off a shark’s fin and toss the body overboard. But given the fact that Obama spent his formative years in both Hawaii and Indonesia, I would have expected him to use the bully pulpit a little more forcefully on sharks’ behalf.

5) You write that one of the incidents that triggered your chats with McCain and his team about sharks was the April 2008 fatal shark attack off San Diego’s Tide Beach, the first such attack in Southern California since 1959. It’s summertime now, Californians are hitting the beaches, so inquiring minds want to know: how many Great Whites are lurking out there? Setting aside Peter Benchley and John Williams, is it rational to fear a shark attack?

There’s actually a pretty straightforward answer to your question: scientists recently completed a study that concluded there are 217 great white sharks swimming off the central California coast at certain times of year. (These same sharks head for the Hawaiian islands during the winter, so they’re not hanging out near California’s beaches year-round.) Of course, this is an estimate based on a combination of direct sightings and mathematical modeling, but it gives you a decent idea of what’s out there.

So is it rational to fear a shark strike? It’s understandable, but not entirely rational. Americans – Californians included – should be much more scared about being killed by the flu, fireworks or the accidental discharge of a firearm. You can take some basic steps to minimize your chances of running into a shark, including staying out of the water at dawn and dusk. In the end, think of entering the ocean like venturing into the forest: it’s wilderness, and we need to respect that. If we tamed it completely, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to explore.

The last thing I will say is that Benchley, the author of Jaws, emerged as one of the nation’s most prominent shark conservationists in his later years, having been alarmed at how people misinterpreted his book as a shark-killing manifesto. His widow, Wendy Benchley, continues that work to this day. So if the Benchleys can make their peace with sharks, so can we.

Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon

Juliet Eilperin will discuss her book at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach on July 27 and at the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego on July 28.

*Photo courtesy of doobybrain.