Farewell to Sharks (And Yes, That's a Bad Thing)

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Santiago Armas / Xinhua Press / Corbis

Dead sharks on the beach of Manta, Ecuador

Steven Spielberg has a lot to answer for — most recently the senses-shattering Transformers: Dark of the Moon, for which the Hollywood great somehow served as an executive producer — but his greatest sin may have been the damage he did to the public image of sharks. His 1975 megahit Jaws didn't just usher in the era of the summer Hollywood blockbuster; it indelibly imprinted the concept of the shark as killer, as the enemy of man. (And John Williams, who wrote that chilling theme music: you're not blameless either.) People who had never so much as waded in the ocean became convinced that sharks were a menace, better off dead. As a kid paddling in the New Jersey surf — where I was probably more likely to encounter medical waste than any shark — I know that's how I felt.

In reality, unlike in the movies, unprovoked shark attacks are extremely rare, and fatal ones even more so. According to the International Shark Attack File, just six people worldwide were killed by sharks last year. But human beings haven't returned the favor. Each year, fishermen kill as many as 73 million sharks, usually cutting off their fins — which are valued for shark-fin soup, a popular dish in Asia — before tossing the bloody carcasses overboard. Tens of millions of other sharks likely die each year accidentally because of fishing gear set for other species. As a result, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that as many as a third of all shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction, including the great white. Sharks aren't the true killers — we are.

That's the message behind the new book Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, by Juliet Eilperin, the Washington Post's national environment reporter. Eilperin journeys from the markets of Hong Kong — the center of the shark-fin trade — to a shark cage in the depths of the Indian Ocean, charting the ancient history of these 400 million-year-old creatures and highlighting the major threats to their continued existence. But Eilperin also explores our disturbed psychological relationship to sharks, asking why even the sight of a single small shark cruising through the water can send a frisson of fear through a swimmer that seems almost instinctual.

Part of that terror may actually stem from a famous attribute of sharks: their need to keep swimming in order to breathe. While that's not actually true for every species of shark, many do need to employ what's called ram ventilation in order to respire, swimming forward with their mouths open, letting the water — with its oxygen — flow through the gill slits. As Eilperin writes, "This is one of the reasons people see sharks as scary: cruising along as they display their sharp teeth, they look as if they're poised to attack at any moment." What appears to be a prelude to aggression is just a poor shark trying to catch its breath.

Of course, it's not that Eilperin is arguing that sharks are completely harmless. She notes that island cultures tied closely to the sea have far more interactions with sharks and more reason to fear them. Today surfers seem particularly vulnerable to attacks — sharks swimming from below can sometimes mistake a person paddling a board for a seal. But even those bites rarely lead to fatalities, in part because sharks don't like the taste of human beings. Eilperin notes the dictum of Christopher Neff, a shark researcher in Australia: we're in the way of sharks as they scour the oceans for food, but we're not on their menu.

They, however, are on ours more than ever. Rapid economic growth in China has led to a sharp increase in demand for shark fins — which is a little peculiar since the shark-fin soup for which the animals give their lives is not all it's cracked up to be. I tried some once in the Chinese port city of Qingdao and was surprised by how thin and watery it is. But the soup isn't served for the taste. It first emerged as a delicacy in China during the Sung dynasty more than 1,000 years ago as a way for the Chinese to show off their wealth. After a short period during Mao Zedong's hard-line rule when such culinary displays were considered politically decadent, the dish is back in favor. And as the number of rich Chinese has grown, so has the value of the shark fins, which can be worth 100 times what shark meat itself goes for — hence the habit many fishermen have of keeping only the fins. Nor is China the only place where sharks are eaten: Japan has shark-fin sushi, and Eilperin notes that shark-fin cat food is even sold in some countries.

If we can't curb the global appetite for the soup, the future looks very bleak for sharks. The good news is that conservationists are beginning to make some headway, both legislatively and with public opinion. Hawaii has instituted a comprehensive ban on all shark-fin products, making it illegal for any person to sell or distribute anything with shark fin, and California is moving on a similar ban. (Hawaii and California have some of the largest markets for shark fin outside Asia.) On July 5, the Bahamas established new protections for sharks in the 250,000 sq. miles of ocean that surround the island, and this week the national members of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission are meeting in California, where they'll consider a ban on fishing equipment that has led to inadvertent shark deaths.

To truly save sharks, however, conservationists have to win over consumers in Asia and change the image of shark-fin soup. A lawmaker in the National People's Congress has introduced legislation banning the trade of shark fins in China, though such laws have little chance of passage now. But prominent Chinese have begun to speak out for sharks — most notably NBA star Yao Ming, who has pledged never to eat shark-fin soup — and there are signs of a dawning conservation movement among younger Chinese. Let's just hope they haven't seen Jaws.