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Sharks: Respecting The Ocean’s Top Predators

Aired 7/27/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Sharks: Many fear them - others are fascinated by the ocean's top predator.

This year, Birch Aquarium is taking advantage of our summer-time obsession with sharks. Birch is hosting a number of shark-related events this month, but with a big difference from most summer sharkfests. The emphasis is on learning about and respecting these top predators, rather than being scared-silly by them.

Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks
By Juliet Eilperin
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Above: Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks By Juliet Eilperin

On Thursday, Birch welcomes Juliet Eilperin to talk about her new book. "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks". Eilperin addresses the fascination we have with the ocean's top predator on Midday Edition and why so many fear sharks believing they target humans for food.

"We're in the way – but not on their menu," Eilperin says.

GUEST

Juliet Eilperin, science writer for The Washington Post, author "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks."

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. This year, Birch aquarium is taking advantage of our summer time obsession with sharks. Birch is hosting a number of shark related events this month, but with a big difference for most summer shark fests. The emphasis is on learning about and respecting these top predators, rather than being scared silly by them. In that vain, Birch welcomes Juliet Eilperin this week to talk about her new book. She is a science writer for the Washington 3069. Her book is called demon fish, travels through the hidden world of sharks. Hi Juliet.

EILPERIN: Hi there, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Can you explain to us your fascination with sharks?

EILPERIN: I came to really be interested in sharks because I was report think about the ocean. So I thought that one of the ways one really needed to explore that is by physically being in there. So it was really through both spending time and seeing sharks in the wild and how they operated, and also getting a sense of what we're learning about them through science in places like Scripps and elsewhere that I came to think that this is -- there's a reason why people are obsessed with them, and it's worth understanding a little more about them.

CAVANAUGH: Why did you think you knew about sharks before you started your research?

EILPERIN: That's a good question. I guess I had some of the same preconceptions other people had. I didn't really think that they were out to get us the way I think most people do in the popular culture. But I kind of thought that they were doing pretty well, they were throughout the globe, and I didn't really have a sense of both how they were in trouble in certain areas and also just the range of senses and skills that they have to be top predators. All of that was a total surprise to me.

CAVANAUGH: Where did your research take you for your book, demon fish?

EILPERIN: I travelled to almost a dozen countries worldwide. I went to Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and throughout the United States to really get a sense of what I call the water's edge, the ways in which humans interact with sharks, whether it's literally because they're in a boat or they're on the beach or also just kind of more abstract ways in which commercial trade or other ways are connecting our lives to sharks.

CAVANAUGH: What are some of the ways that humans interact with sharks? We think of sharks being in the water, we do a lot of surfing here in San Diego. That's a concern. A lot of swimming here. But how do people in other parts of the world interact with sharks?

EILPERIN: Very differently, is the answer to that. Upon it's everything from their places in Papia New Guinea and elsewhere particularly in the Pacific where there are entire faith traditions that center around sharks. There are ways inform people worship shark sharks or see them as a way to connect with their ancestors. There's the commercial way that a lot of people interact with sharks, so that can be anything from Hong Kong shark fin dealers who make tons of money off the fins that are used in an Asian delicacy called shark fin soup or commercial boat operators, whether they're on the west or east coast of the U.S. who take people out to hunt for sharks, whether it's a bachelor party or someone who's fresh out of college who's interested in nabbing a big shark to tell a story.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We had a legislation here in California just recently banning shark fin soup because of the way sharks suffer when they're killed for their fins. Are there other reasons, threats to sharks in the world's oceans?

EILPERIN: Well, that's certainly one of the primary threats. And you're right, that's a really hot topic right now. That bill that you mentioned has passed the California state assembly and is pending in the state Senate. We should know most likely by the end of the summer whether California which has two of the largest Chinese markets outside of Asia is going to ban the sale of shark fins. But targeting for their fins kills between 26 and 73 million sharks a year according to scientific estimates, there's also accidental catch of sharks which is a significant driver of shark mortality. What happens is the sharks are attracted to the same bait that attract tuna and sword fish, which are very important commercial fisheries both off the west coast and worldwide. So a lot of sharks are killed accidentally that way, and while we don't have a precise count, it definitely contributes to millions of sharks being killed each year.

CAVANAUGH: There are so many different kinds of sharks. I think people who don't even know much about sharks know that much. Did you concentrate on a particular species?

EILPERIN: I wrote a lot about the great whites because that's something people care about a lot. And it's important in just our image of sharks, but I wrote about from Pygmy sharks to these epilet sharks that are -- right now, there's a new species discovered in Indonesia Papua which can crawl along the ocean floor using its pectoral fins to push it along. So one of the things that's really interesting is that sharks are an incredible example of adaptive radiation. They evolved to fit all these different ecosystems around the world.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Juliet Eilperin. She's a science writer for the Washington post. She's going to be in town tomorrow talking about her new book called demon fish, tramps through the hidden world of sharks. Are there things, Juliet, that we still don't know about sharks?

EILPERIN: There are a lot of things that are unanswered at this point. One of the primary ones is where do sharks breed and reproduce. It's really hard to track this, and this is something people are studying again when you're talking about the Pacific coast, they're looking at where great whites are breeding. And they have a sense that it probably is off Mexico's west coast, and then they migrate up. But they're still trying to figure this out. It's really hard to observe sharks. While we can put, for example, satellite tracking technology on them and get a sense of where they're moving. We haven't developed the technology at this point that can give us a precise sense of, for example, are they in the midst of breeding or giving birth. That's critically important if we're gonna get a sense of what are the most important areas to protect to insure their survival.

CAVANAUGH: You just mentioned sharks are very good at adapting to their particular environments. Do we know much about their evolution?

EILPERIN: We have some sense. Although one of the things that's more difficult when you look at sharks' evolutionary history is that because they don't have bony skeletons like bony fish, they have cartilaginous skeletons, we don't have the same fossils that we have when it comes to other fish or, say, some mammals and things like that. So it's one of the reasons why there hasn't been the same kind of scientificing evidence for what's happened. But we certainly have a lot of really interesting evolutionary facts that have been discovered. In fact, one of the things I find most compelling is that we share evolutionary characteristics with sharks including the bones in our inner ear, and the muscles we use to chew and talk. That's some of the most recent findings that I think give us a sense of what does it mean to assure the planet with creatures that have been around for hundreds of millions of years.

CAVANAUGH: And we also tend to be top predators as well.

EILPERIN: Absolutely. I think there are certain ways in which people obviously get compared to sharks. And that's one of them.

CAVANAUGH: Let's talk a little bit about popular perceptions of sharks and what you found that counter them. And how some of those perceptions can actually be harmful to us and to sharks. Ever since Jaws, I think pop culture has been repelled but also fascinated by sharks. Any ideas why?

EILPERIN: I think the fact of the matter is that sharks tap into our primal fear of being killed by a fearsome animal, and specifically being attacked out of the depths with no warning. I think that kind of surprise strike as opposed to even people might fear a grizzly bear or a mountain lion. But maybe there's something in the back of our minds that makes us think we can at least see that coming, whereas you don't see it coming with a shark. Very rarely does someone have a warning. I think it does tap into something that's just in our DNA, for lack of a better term. But that said, one of the most interesting things is the fact that while a lot of shark species including great whites do stalk their prey, there's no evidence to something there's sharks are stalking us. They're often going after far fattier being, a sea lion or a seal. That's a real misperception which I think has done a lot to propel the demise of shark species.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Even though we're told that sharks don't prefer to attack humans or eat humans, there doesn't seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason to shark attacks.

EILPERIN: Right. It really is -- there's a researcher in Australia, Christopher Neff, who always says we're in the way but not on the menu. Which I think is the way to think about it. There are certain things, for example, that might help your listeners to know ideally if you can avoid being out there in dawn or dusk, those are times of poor visibility in the water. So when they try to analyze the shark attacks that have occurred, whether it's off California's coast or elsewhere, there does seem a correlation there. There's some concern that when you have a surf board from below, that might resemble the shadow of a seal or another large creature. So there are certain things that you can do that can guard against this unpredictable threat. But you're right, it is one of those unknowables. It's interesting that people are so much more scared of that than, say, fire works, which kill 11 times as many Americans as sharks do, on a given basis.

CAVANAUGH: Good point. What other misperceptions or misconceptions have you run into when it comes to sharks?

EILPERIN: That's interesting. I think that one thing that people simply just don't understand is, for example, the fact that they move all the time with their mouths agape, and there's this idea that again it's just -- they need to hunt every single second that they're Alive. And actually that's because they don't have -- they basically don't have the same swim bladder that other fish have, and also in order to get sufficient oxygen, which they need, they need to have water passing over their gills. So most shark species need to engage in what's called ram ventilation. They need to have the water passing over their gills so they get enough oxygen. And so they just have to keep moving. It doesn't mean that every single second of the day they're looking to take a bite out of something. Great whites can last for a long time without eating.

CAVANAUGH: And is that idea that sharks never sleep come from that idea that they have to keep moving?

EILPERIN: It's absolutely true. And it's interesting the way scientists talk about it, they say there are periods where they're at rest or not at rest. But they don't use the term, interesting, sleep, to describe what sharks do.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think about the shark week specials and other shark related programming that we see every summer?

EILPERIN: I think when Discovery has in recent years been trying to put in more substantive scientific information into their shows, I think they've become aware of the impact of shark week. And so they certainly are trying to do that. That said, there's no question that the things that give the biggest ratings have to do with the prospect of attacks or what are you going to do to avoid an attack. And it's interesting, I think that there is this dichotomy that anyone who's involved with sharks has to deal with, which is that the way people initially get interested in sharks is by the idea that they're a danger and a threat. That's the primary way we relate to them. And so the question becomes, once you've got someone hooked, and this applies to the book I've written or anything else, you're really trying to unpack some of those myths.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us little bit about your lecture tomorrow at the Birch aquarium.

EILPERIN: I'm going to be giving people a sense how the human relationship with sharks has evolved over time and give them an idea of both what we've seen in terms of whether it's historical acts of sharks, how the west got disconnected from sharks, how we learned about sharks yet in more recent times through the attacks and Jaws and things like that, and then explore really what does it mean that we're having this edge of scientific discovery at the very moment that sharks are in peril? So I want to take people through that and also of course invite their questions and get a sense of what people are most curious about because it's amazing when I've had the opportunity to really get a pass port to this hidden world, I'm very eager to share what I've learned and quiet a sense of how people are engaged with this.

CAVANAUGH: Juliet Eilperin's book is demon fish: Travels through the hidden world of sharks. And she'll be speaking tomorrow evening at the Birch aquarium at Scripps am thanks so much, Juliet.

EILPERIN: Thanks so much, Maureen.

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