How Author Juliet Eilperin Learned To Understand Sharks, The 'Demon Fish' Author Juliet Eilperin says that while sharks are efficient, relentless killers, humanity's fear of the animals at the top of the ocean's food chain is overblown. "They're incredibly good at what they do," she says, but "they're not targeting us."
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Sympathy For The 'Demon Fish'

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Sympathy For The 'Demon Fish'

Sympathy For The 'Demon Fish'

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I think it's pretty hard to get through a summer without being reminded of this:

(Soundbite of song, "Theme Music from 'Jaws'")

SIMON: Theme music from Jaws, for sharks stalking beaches, as puffy-legged vacationers frolic in shallow waters, never suspecting that the fish that has been called the definition of predator has seen them, smelled them and now craves them.

But according to Juliet Eilperin's new book, it's the sharks who should have some music to warn them of the advance of predator human beings. Her new book is "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks." Juliet Eilperin, who is the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. JULIET EILPERIN (Author, "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks," National Environmental Reporter, Washington Post): Thanks so much.

SIMON: So, who is the predator: the man or the shark?

Ms. EILPERIN: The man, the man. We are the ones who are the dangerous ones, although it's not the sharks are without their dangers. But if you want to say who poses the greater threat between the two, there's no question, it's humans.

SIMON: Because?

Ms. EILPERIN: Because we crave sharks, both for their fins - so that we can put it into an Asian delicacy, that's shark fin soup; we catch them by accident; and then some people like to go catch them so they can create fiberglass trophies and tell tales to their friends. And as a result, we're killing somewhere between 80 and 100 million sharks a year, whereby comparison, sharks kill between four and five people on average worldwide.

SIMON: You point out that we're not particularly appetizing to them, are we?

Ms. EILPERIN: We're not fatty enough. We don't have enough on us. So, in fact, often what, you know, when a Great White attacks someone, they do the bite and spit. They take a bite hoping that we're a seal and they spit us out. You know, what you see in the movie and this total consumption of humans is not usually what happens.

SIMON: So relax, at most it'll be a foot or something like that.

Ms. EILPERIN: Exactly. It's not to minimize it. But if it's any consolation, we now have a 90 percent chance of surviving a shark strike. So that's a lot better odds than it was around the turn of last century.

SIMON: Do sharks and humans share some traits?

Ms. EILPERIN: They do. We have some evolutionary traits. I mean the muscles that we use to chew and to talk actually come from sharks. Now, in terms of personality traits, it depends how you define it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Washington lawyers and sharks.

Ms. EILPERIN: Exactly.

SIMON: But other than that. Can we co-exist or do we have competing interests on this planet?

Ms. EILPERIN: Well, it depends on how you look at it. But I think there are many ways in which we could consider ourselves allies. Basically, sharks are essential for maintaining the balance in the ecosystems. Because, as you said, they're one of the top predators, and they really keep mid-level predators in check so that we can have all sorts of species and healthy coral reefs. And for that reason, it's actually more in our interest to keep them around than to get rid of them.

SIMON: And how accurate is the image, you know, the rep that we've hung on sharks, that they're the predators of the sea?

Ms. EILPERIN: Well, to some extent it makes sense. I mean basically they are relentless predators. It's why they've been able to survive for hundreds of millions of years. They're incredibly good at what they do; it's just that they're not targeting us. The way Christopher Neff, a researcher in Australia, puts it is that we're in the way but not on the menu. So I think that's our biggest misconception.

But in other ways, you know, sharks can be pretty brutal. Some of them eat each other in-utero. They abandon their young. So again, they're not saints, by any means.

SIMON: Are they as ancient as dinosaurs?

Ms. EILPERIN: They're more ancient. They predate dinosaurs by roughly 200 million years.


Ms. EILPERIN: Yeah, and whats really interesting, when you do the DNA - like some people like Steve Palumbi, Stanford University professor has done - what you see is they haven't changed that much over time. It's one of the reasons why they're pretty ill-quipped to adapt to whether it's intense fishing pressure or ocean acidification. There are things that are happening now that they never had to contend with over the course of, again, hundreds of millions of years.

SIMON: youve noted that sharks, in fact, can fairly be considered pretty nasty predators.

Ms. EILPERIN: Right.

SIMON: But perhaps not nearly as bad that movie "Jaws." How did they get cast as they other?

Ms. EILPERIN: I mean I think there's this primordial fear that we have of them because, frankly, particularly with island cultures, they were more closely tied to the sea. They were going out to sea and many of them were having interactions with sharks. So I think that, you know, they are one of the few creatures that can attack us with no warning. And I think we came to see them as evil, I think partially during seafaring times.

SIMON: Feel differently about sharks now that youve gotten to know them?

Ms. EILPERIN: I do. I'm not obsessed with them and I don't - maybe love is not the right word for them but I have both, incredible respect for this animal that's managed to survive for so long. And I do have a little bit of affection. I think that they're beautiful creatures, and that's something I didn't really think before getting in the water with them. But now that I've seen them up close and in lots of different contexts, I just think there's really nothing else like them.

SIMON: Thanks so much. Going swimming soon?

Ms. EILPERIN: Yeah, Im going to do a lot of coastal visits and I plan to get in the water.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Okay.

(Soundbite of movie theme, "Jaws")

SIMON: All right, coming from you that means a lot. Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, her new book "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks."

And you can read Juliet's description of a Hong Kong shark fin market on our web site,

(Soundbite of movie theme, "Jaws")

SIMON: Sharks can't get in the bathtub. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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