Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: Demon Fish by Juliet Eilperin

Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.
by Juliet Eilperin
Pantheon, 2011

Nature books with a lot of first-hand reporting in them can get chatty, preachy, or precious. Juliet Eilperin has avoided these traps in her engrossing exploration of the relationship between humanity and sharks. She recounts her visits with shark callers, shark hunters, sharkfin soup makers, and many others, weaving them into a book that's both a natural history and a meditation on the changing ways humans think of, and alter, the natural world. This is not a book that goes into great detail about the history of sharks and the hundreds of species. Instead, Eilperin presents her facts judiciously, walking the fine line between too much and too little detail to serve her narrative. I thought I was well read on sharks (the books of Richard Ellis are a highly recommended starting point), but I learned a lot here, especially about the challenges of shark conservation and a closely related topic, the sharkfin soup trade. It is dismaying how unnecessary and wasteful this really is: the fact that sticks in my head is that only a rod of fin cartilage goes into the soup, meaning the amount of shark in a bowl of sharkfin soup can practically be measured in molecules. Eilperin romanticizes sharks a bit, but forgivably so. She hits hard on the fact that taking the apex predators out of any ecosystem has long-lasting, broad, and maybe irreversible effects. As a writer specializing in following the discovery of new species, I would have liked a little more information on how frequently this happens with sharks and how. That's a quibble, though. This is an excellent book that should, as the author clearly intends, add momentum to recent efforts to better understand and protect these ancient predators.

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