Sharks: evil killers or just misunderstood?


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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (18/6/11)

What comes to mind when you hear the term "sharks?" Is it fascination? Fear? The film Jaws? People have been obsessed with sharks for hundreds of years, and it's an obsession driven mostly by fear and misunderstanding. But if we're not careful, that intriguing deep-sea predator may not be around for much longer. Thanks to aggressive hunting of sharks by humans, a third of all shark species face extinction. And like many other threatened species, they deserve protection.

That's the argument Juliet Eilperin, the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post, makes in her compelling new book. Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks. Eilperin explores the facts and fiction surrounding sharks, and paints a portrait of a complex, misunderstood species. She was inspired to write the book for the same reason many people are drawn to sharks: she simply found the species captivating. "I became fascinated with the idea that there's this really ancient creature that predates dinosaurs by a couple hundred million years that's still around," Eilperin told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald in a recent interview. "I thought it was an incredible way to look into this powerful, mythical creature that has fascinated humans."

Eilperin believes that the fascination with sharks lies with the fact they are both seen and unseen. Sharks are imposing, aggressive, hard-to-miss creatures that are embedded in our psyche, yet they live under the water, where you can't see them coming. "You know they are out there and you don't know where they are and that they could surface at any moment," she said. "I think somehow that and the obvious threat they pose give them a power in our psyche unlike almost any other creature."

Unfortunately, that power has helped fuel two industries that are contributing to the depleting shark population: shark-fishing for food and for sport.

Shark fin soup is considered a Chinese delicacy, and as its price decreases, demand increases. It's now served at many restaurants and functions around the world. But Eilperin argues that people aren't drawn to the soup for taste. Instead, the very nature of eating shark is symbolic. "The noodles that get derived from fins have no taste whatsoever," Eilpersin said. "It's about texture and just the fact that you've managed to conquer a shark, indirectly, by ordering a bowl of soup."

Those wishing to conquer sharks have another, more direct option: fishing the species for sport. Few hunting expeditions offer the same satisfaction as standing next to a catch that weighs hundreds, and possibly thousands, of pounds.

Each year, 72 million sharks are hunted and killed and one-third of all shark species are at risk for extinction. What can be done for sharks in the face of increasing threats? Education and awareness are key. According to Eilperin, sharks are essential for the ocean's health and well-being. "They take out the sick, the weak, the garbage that's floating around and that's incredibly important for maintaining healthy ecosystems," Eilperin explained. "It's really hard to see how you could continue to have healthy oceans if you continue to deplete the top predators at the rate that we're doing."

Jaws came out 36 years ago, drastically shifting the way sharks were perceived by people. Eilperin believes it's time for another drastic shift -- before it's too late. However, she remains hopeful. Change happened once. It can happen again.

"There are tons of people who are obsessed with sharks," she said. "We're at a moment when people are beginning to look at sharks in a different light."

Demon Fish

Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks

Juliet Eilperin

Buy this book at:

Save on Music, Books and Dvds at Indigo

"In this eye-opening adventure that spans the globe, Juliet Eilperin investigates the fascinating ways different individuals and cultures relate to the ocean's top predator. Along the way, she reminds us why, after millions of years, sharks remain among nature's most awe-inspiring creatures."


Read more at Random House Canada.

Read an excerpt from Demon Fish.

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