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Saviours of the sea

18 February 2012

9:00 AM

18 February 2012

9:00 AM

Demon Fish Juliet Eilperin

Duckworth, pp.320, 18.99

The last time we went out for lobster in Lyme Bay we found a dogfish in the creel.  A type of shark that roamed the seas before dinosaurs existed, a dogfish won’t slice your leg off the way a Great White might, but it is very scratchy to hold onto, thanks to its denticles, the teeth that cover its entire body (Speedo, the swimsuit company, is trying to imitate its streamlining qualities).

Ours was about two foot long and snappy, with a wide rictus mouth, and it rubbed us raw thrashing about before we dropped it back in the water. While its 400-million- year-old contemporaries are embedded in the Jurassic cliffs where Mary Anning found ichthyosaurs, dogfish can still be sampled in fish and chip shops as rock salmon, or huss.

At current rates of attrition, though, even huss may be off the menu. Juliet Eilperin, the Washington Post’s environment correspondent, has followed the story of sharks, and their uneasy relationship to man, across the globe; her intriguing, even-handed account is an eye-opener. Sharks patrol every sea on the planet, scouring and herding and killing; yet the only place where they reign as they once did may be Kingman Reef in the middle of the Pacific. Sharks belong to that group of top predators which include polar bears which keeps our ecosystem fit and functioning.

You may not love them the way Eilperin does, but you cannot but admire their primitive perfection, nor fail to recognise them as the ultimate monitor of the seas’ well-being. Remove the shark, and the systems begin to cloud: seal populations explode, fish stocks collapse, jellyfish multiply. If we can’t recalibrate our relationship with the shark, Eilperin suggests, we may as well turn our backs on the barren oceans.

Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico, joining shark-spotters at South Africa’s beaches, or talking to shifty but unrepentant fin dealers in Hong Kong, Eilperin is a good reporter, as level-headed about sharks as about the men who prey on them. Some older cultures have always held the shark in high regard, reflected in the elaborate and respectful rituals of the shark callers of Papua New Guinea, who enjoy high status and may snag a shark on the reefs if they abstain from sex, and keep their feet out of animal dung for at least three days before they go hunting in canoes. Their impact on shark populations is, consequently, minute.

Over on the Florida Keys operators like Mark the Shark offer boozy he-man fishing days to executives and stag-parties. They need a great, sexy catch to woo the punters, but find the raw material ever harder to hook. A single boatload of flaccid fishermen is merely a shame; but as Eilperin says, we forget how many of us there are on this planet. And we take sharks out faster than they breed. Not that many people care too much. The Jaws image of man-eating sharks is too ingrained; poor Peter Benchley devoted the later part of his life trying to play down the story he had told only too well.

Sharks do occasionally eat people, around six people a year, worldwide, though they would prefer a fat juicy seal. Eilperin points out that you are more likely to be killed by an elephant, or a bee, while ‘on average more than 40 times as many Americans seek hospital treatment for accidents involving Christmas tree ornaments than incidents involving sharks’.

In China, meanwhile, it’s not the catchers but the consumers who enjoy status: from a rare delicacy in the Sung dynasty, shark’s fin has become the ne plus ultra of any Chinese wedding feast. Most de-finned sharks end up dead in the sea, where nine tenths of the population has already disappeared; every year, a shark population the size of France is slaughtered for its fins.

The fins, dried and sold in China, taste of nothing whatever: readers may enjoy Eilperin’s shock as she confronts the ruinous delicacy in a Hong Kong noodle shop. The vapid shred of transparent cartilage could be just another noodle. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine, she wondered whether Chinese wedding guests might be persuaded to stop eating shark’s fin and to start wearing top hats instead.

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