Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks - Juliet Eilperin (2011)


I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.

—George W. Bush, campaigning as a presidential candidate in Saginaw, Michigan, September 29, 2000

I am still optimistic about sharks.

—Peter Klimley, professor at the University of California at Davis

The northern Line Islands are, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. It is a place where sharks rule.

A series of Pacific atolls lying roughly one thousand miles south of Hawaii, the Line Islands remind us of what the sea used to look like. To get there from Honolulu, you must ride on a motorboat or ship, on open ocean, for five days. Its uninhabited Kingman Reef is pristine; the other islands are slightly more populated in quick succession until you reach Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, with a population of fifty-one hundred.

National Geographic’s Enric Sala led an expedition to the atoll in 2005 and returned in 2006. What he saw was something unlike anything he had ever seen: a reef so dominated by sharks and other top predators that other fish were nowhere to be seen, since they know that to be seen is to be eaten.

“There is a landscape of fear,” he tells me as we sit on a beach in the Dominican Republic. He is drawing in the sand, to try to give me a sense of how bit by bit humans have degraded the world’s oceans. The other fish are elusive at Kingman, he explains, because they know the risks if they come out.

Sharks make up 75 percent of the fish biomass at Kingman Reef. At Kiritimati, by contrast, top predators make up just 19 percent. While diving at Palmyra, an island not quite as unpopulated as Kingman, Sala witnessed firsthand what it meant to exist in a perfectly honed predatory system. In an effort to conduct a comprehensive survey of the marine organisms on the reef, he caught a damselfish and tucked it into a Ziploc bag, which he in turn deposited into the nylon mesh bag he was holding at his side. Then he reached for a grouper about half a foot long, hoping to fit it into another Ziploc bag. During the course of this tussle the fish began to shake, and suddenly—whoosh—a couple of blacktip sharks came along, aiming for the grouper. “They started biting at it,” he recounts. “Then a whitetip and gray reef shark came.” At this point Sala decided to abandon the mesh bag with the two fish still inside it and swim away to a safe distance where he could observe the scene. “They destroyed the mesh bag and ate the fish, right through the Ziploc. These guys were really hungry. There’s a lot of competition. Everything that is injured or sick is eaten within seconds there.”

Kingman Reef looks like few other atolls in the world: the only ones that rival it are those that help compose the Phoenix Islands, another Pacific archipelago that, like the Line Islands, is split between the American and the Kiribati government. Not only is Kingman Reef supremely healthy, with corals covering the seafloor to such an extent that it’s nearly impossible to see the sand, but the fish have been so sheltered from human beings that they view them as a curiosity. When Sala and his colleagues began diving there, the snappers and groupers appeared to be fascinated by the strange sight of these alien creatures, checking out the Spaniard’s ponytail and the other scientists’ equipment.

“I bet it was the same feeling Darwin had when he stepped on Galápagos for the first time,” Sala says. “It was a totally new experience.”

There’s just one problem: as soon as you add humans to the mix, the sharks start disappearing.

Sala and his collaborators published the results of their expedition on February 27, 2008, in the online edition of Public Library of Science Biology. It is the most comprehensive analysis ever of what they call “reefs without people.” That same edition included a commentary from Nancy Knowlton and Jeremy B. C. Jackson, coral experts affiliated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Smithsonian Institution, saying the study has redefined the way we should view corals worldwide. Examining coral reefs without taking into account what they were like before humans degraded them, they analogized, was like “trying to imagine the ecology of tropical rainforests by studying environmental changes and interaction among the surviving plants and animals on a vast cattle ranch in the center of a deforested Amazon without any basic data on how the forest worked before it was cleared and burned.”

When you imagine the coral reefs of old, or even the sea just a hundred years ago, sharks play a starring role. We think of oceans, and wild landscapes in general, as a neat pyramid in which there are a small number of big predators on top and many small predators below. The study Sala and his colleagues have published suggests just the opposite: an undisturbed ecosystem resembles an inverted pyramid with plenty of large predators on top and fewer small predators below. The animals at the top clear out the weakest animals in the population and keep the midsize predators in check. Without the top predators, the waters begin to look completely different.

Ransom Myers provided the first evidence that it was worth keeping sharks around, and his students continue to build the case for it. Boris Worm, one of Myers’s closest collaborators, co-authored a 2008 paper in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution that elaborated on this phenomenon. Worm and his colleagues identified how the “landscape of fear” that Sala talks about reverberates throughout ecosystems worldwide. In Prince William Sound, Alaska, harbor seals are so scared of Pacific sleeper sharks that they forage in shallower areas, which in turn keeps the walleye pollack population intact. The tiger sharks in Shark Bay, Australia, intimidate large herbivores such as sea turtles and dugongs enough that these prey species shift their distribution depending on the season: that keeps the area’s sea-grass habitat from being overgrazed.1 Sharks, Worm explains, “have a huge impact on the ecosystem because they were there before everything else. When everyone came into the system as an evolutionary baby, sharks were already there and had figured it out.” Nowadays sharks keep other, smaller predators in check. “Sharks are being kind of ‘the cop on the street’ in the ecosystem,” Worm analogizes.

Rachel Graham makes the identical pitch when she lobbies local officials in Belize to put protections in place for sharks. “Think about what would happen to your town if there was no rubbish collector,” she tells them. That would be a problem, they respond. “Now imagine in a month’s time nobody’s arrived in a month, and the rubbish’s piled up,” she continues. “And the policeman hasn’t arrived.” Graham’s point is clear: sharks may not perform the most glamorous function in Belize’s waters, but their role keeps the marine ecosystem humming. Take out the sharks, and the species that Belize’s citizens really care about—the ones that make up the bulk of the commercial fish trade—will suffer.

In the same way that scientists now use computers to predict how climate change will reshape the planet by the end of the century, researchers are modeling the implications of taking large sharks out of the ocean. One group found that a simulated decline of tiger sharks in Hawaii’s French Frigate Shoals would boost the numbers of seabirds, turtles, monk seals, and reef sharks, thereby triggering a rapid decline in tuna and jacks. A similar exercise showed that taking sharks out of Floreana Island in the Galápagos would harm several commercial reef fish species, since the ranks of toothed cetaceans, sea lions, and other predators would swell accordingly. Just as we are conducting an uncontrolled experiment on the earth by emitting an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we are altering the sea with the same sense of abandon, by yanking out what Francesco Ferretti and his colleagues call “a relatively stable force in ocean ecosystems over evolutionary time.”2

Researchers have recently discovered this same behavioral ripple effect in the northern Rockies. When Americans wiped out gray wolves in Yellowstone and the surrounding areas in the late 1920s, the willow and aspen trees stopped reproducing. Then, after the Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves to the region in the mid-1990s, the willows and aspens began to reappear: in time songbirds and beavers came back as well. It wasn’t just that the wolves were eating the elk, but the elk became sufficiently frightened of wolf attacks that they stopped grazing all winter on the banks of streams, where the aspens and willows grow. Even local mountain lions changed the way they roam, and often take longer routes on rougher ground so if a wolf comes along, they can climb up a tree for shelter. Ed Bangs, who heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s gray wolf recovery program in the northern Rockies, explains that all the other animals in the ecosystem recalibrated their behavior once one of the top predators returned. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, yeah, wolves, I remember how to deal with that.’ ”

A few months before Worm’s paper came out, a group of nineteen scientists, led by Benjamin S. Halpern at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, published an article and map in Science capturing the extent to which humans have left a footprint on the sea. They culled seventeen global data sets for twenty marine ecosystems and came to a stunning conclusion: “No area is unaffected by human influence.” None. Nearly half of all coral reefs experience “medium high to very high impact” from humans, they concluded, with areas in the Mediterranean, the South and East China seas, and the North American Eastern Seaboard ranking among the hardest hit.3

Sometimes humans’ impact on the sea is visible, like in the aftermath of the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. The massive oil spill that spewed out of BP’s doomed exploration well not only covered brown pelicans and northern gannets but also soaked sharks swimming well below the ocean’s surface. While it will take years to assess the full extent of the accident’s toll, there is no question that sharks—possibly some of the most imperiled ones, such as bigeye thresher, dusky, and oceanic whitetip—suffered along with other wildlife in the region. Two months after the accident ten whale sharks showed up just twenty-three miles southwest of Sarasota, Florida, raising the possibility that these animals had been forced to seek refuge in a different part of the ocean as pollution contaminated the Gulf of Mexico.

We attack sharks in subtle ways, and in blunt ones. In one of the most telling incidents of just how dramatically the “man bites shark” story has evolved in recent years, a Coney Island lifeguard had to come to the aid of a juvenile shark—most likely a sand tiger shark—that was being attacked by a crowd of Labor Day beachgoers in 2007. As New York’s Daily News put it, “Tender-hearted muscleman Marius Mironescu rescued a 2-foot sand shark from a mob of panicked swimmers, grabbing the wriggling fish in his arms and—in a neat reversal of the usual scenario—swimming out to sea with the stunned animal.” Mironescu estimated that between seventy-five and a hundred people had encircled the small creature and begun attacking it. “They were holding on to it and some people were actually hitting him, smacking his face. Well, I wasn’t going to let them hurt the poor thing,” he told the Daily News. In the end the shark proved less forgiving than the lifeguard who came to its rescue: while it played dead during the attack, as soon as Mironescu began doing a backstroke with the fish in one hand, it revived and tried to bite him.4

Figuring out where the sea is in the most trouble is not terribly complicated: any decent marine biologist can tell you if you want to see the ocean at its most vulnerable, go to where the people are.

Bimini, to which I journeyed around the same time Sala and his colleagues first visited the Line Islands, used to be a place where sharks and other big fish ruled. Years ago, Ernest Hemingway used to spend weeks on end here: when he wasn’t writing novels such as The Old Man and the Sea, he spent his days struggling to bring in the massive sport fish exerting overwhelming strength on the end of his fishing line. Pictures of the trophy fish he lured in and showed off at the Bimini Big Game Club used to be on display here, until fire destroyed the museum a few years ago.

Now the fish aren’t so gigantic, and Bimini isn’t much of a vacation spot. There are a couple of Caribbean bars—the kinds with sand on the floor and women’s underwear hanging from the ceiling—and a few unimpressive condo developments. But Rafael Reyes, president of the Bimini Bay Resort and Marina, and his business partner Gerardo Capo want to change all that. For about a decade the two developers have been building a golf resort that aims to bring as many as five thousand tourists a day to an island with a year-round population of just sixteen hundred residents. In order to do so, they need to rip up the island’s mangroves and replace them with golf turf.

That dredging and destruction is eroding the vegetation that local lemon sharks depend on for survival. Sonny Gruber, who has spent more than three decades studying lemon sharks in Bimini, has been driven to despair by the development. Based on an eleven-year study started in the mid-1990s, he and his colleagues determined that after March 2001, during the heaviest dredging of the seafloor for the resort, the first-year survival rate for lemon sharks fell 23.5 percent, and it hadn’t fully rebounded by the time the study concluded in 2006.5 The dredging could have hurt the sharks in several ways, including the fact that toxins were introduced to the water, and the fact that the sharks now had to compete for more limited resources within a degraded habitat.

In Bimini, Gruber and I also headed out in his motorboat to observe Reyes and Capo’s bulldozers do their work. Gruber slipped into despondency as the yellow machines mangled the mangroves, alternately muttering and yelling at me for not expressing more outrage at this environmental travesty.

“At the end of my career, I get to document the destruction of the species I’ve been documenting for twenty years,” he declared as the machines toppled the vegetation and scattered the remains into the ocean. “Wonderful.” As soon as we returned to the biological station where Gruber resides, he slipped away to his room and remained there for the rest of the afternoon, too depressed to talk.

But an avalanche of bad press, coupled with elections that have placed the former opposition party in power, ended up turning the tide against the developers. Bahamian officials have rewritten the rules for the project multiple times, seeking to contain the number of units and compelling the developers to set aside land on East Bimini, one of the island’s most ecologically valuable areas. On December 29, 2008, the Bahamian government announced it was creating a new marine reserve on Bimini’s North Sound in an effort to preserve the mangroves on which the lemon sharks and nearly a hundred other species depend. The new protections will make it much harder to build a golf course as part of the Bimini Bay Resort. When I call Gruber at his Miami office to discuss the news, he seems stunned at the turn of events. “It’s a damn miracle,” he says repeatedly.

Still, the resort’s developers haven’t given up. At the time of the marine reserve announcement, the complex already boasted 250 housing units, three restaurants, two pools, and the Bahamas’ two largest marinas, as well as approval to build a ten-thousand-square-foot casino. Allison Robins, Bimini Bay’s public relations manager, says the creation of a protected area amounts to “a step forward … Basically, they’ll put up a bunch of buffer zones and we’ll develop around that.”

It remains unclear what will happen to sharks in Bimini, as well as elsewhere around the globe. Sala believes the only way these predators will survive is if international officials impose “a global, indefinite moratorium on shark fishing. Otherwise sharks and humans cannot exist together.” And in the places where sharks have been hardest hit, such as in the Mediterranean, he adds, they will never come back.

In some cases an ecosystem can come back, though it can take decades. Scientists and tourists alike have spotted more great whites off the East Coast, a trend that has led to temporary closings in locales ranging from Brooklyn’s Rockaway Beach to Cape Cod’s Chatham Harbor. While a number of factors may have prompted this trend, including warmer sea temperatures and better observation systems, there’s a clear driving force: more seals for the sharks to eat. There is now a steady increase in the number of gray seals and a growing resident seal population off the coast of Chatham and Monomoy Island, Massachusetts, largely because the state phased out its bounty on seal “noses” in 1964, and protections the federal government put in place in the 1970s. And there still hasn’t been a deadly shark attack off New England since 1936.6

This sort of recovery will require an extraordinary act of global cooperation. While individual nations can protect the waters within a couple hundred miles of their coasts—right now, 4 percent of the world’s continental shelves enjoy some level of protection7—the high seas are unpoliced when it comes to sharks. Until they are, sharks will remain vulnerable. It has taken humans centuries to create the bizarre turn of events we now face. As the State Department’s David Balton puts it, “For most of human history, sharks have been seen as a threat to us. Only recently are we beginning to see we’re a threat to them.”

As policy makers continue to postpone taking meaningful shark conservation measures, they may want to consider the historic debt we owe to these animals. With their rituals of ancestor worship, the shark callers of Papua New Guinea may seem quaint to outsiders. But their religious belief is rooted in scientific fact: sharks are our actual evolutionary ancestors. The physical characteristics we’ve inherited from them have helped shape the way we hear, and even swallow. It’s something to think about the next time you gulp down a mouthful of shark’s fin soup.

Peter Klimley has a sunnier outlook than most marine biologists. Humans are beginning to understand how perfectly sharks have adapted to their marine environment, and they are willing to pay money to observe them underwater. Since sharks congregate in some of the most ecologically diverse regions of the sea, he reasons, government officials could protect them if they wanted and stave off the most dire effects of overfishing and habitat destruction. And with ecotourism, “you have a competing financial incentive to save the sharks.”

Perhaps Klimley is right, and we will end up saving these fish so we can sell whale shark tchotchkes like the ones on Isla Holbox, and squeeze pudgy tourists into metal cages off Guadalupe Island in Baja. Having swum with sharks a couple dozen times, I can attest to the allure of watching their perfectly adapted bodies glide through the water, giving just a hint of the power they could unleash at any moment.

But the best example of how we should treat sharks came from perhaps the unlikeliest conservation hero of them all, George W. Bush, in June 2006. For years environmentalists had been pressing the White House to fully protect the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Another remarkable series of Pacific atolls stretching fourteen hundred miles long and a hundred miles across, the uninhabited chain boasts more than seven thousand marine species, at least a quarter of which are found nowhere else on earth. In the sea the Northwest Hawaiian Islands serve as home to species such as the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and threatened green sea turtle; on land they provide a rookery for fourteen million seabirds.

President Theodore Roosevelt first recognized the atoll’s value in 1909, when he established a bird sanctuary there and provided federal protections. Bill Clinton used executive orders to create a coral reef ecosystem reserve in the area during the final months of his administration, but stopped short of making it a permanent federal sanctuary. Eight Hawaiian fishermen held licenses to fish in the area, and several of these men, along with their powerful political allies, had blocked efforts to preserve the reef even though it was a minor fishery that required a two-day boat journey from Honolulu to reach. (One of the permitted commercial anglers, Zenen Ozoa, broke with the others and lobbied to shut down the fishery on the grounds that it was too environmentally harmful to the region.)8

Ocean advocates waged a tireless campaign to convince Bush that he could burnish his green credentials by making the islands a marine reserve, lobbying not just his top environmental adviser, James L. Connaughton, an avid diver, but First Lady Laura Bush, an enthusiastic bird-watcher. The filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the renowned explorer, spent a month and a half filming on the archipelago and produced two one-hour documentaries on the subject. He showed one of them to the president in the White House movie theater. In the end Bush surprised even his own advisers by declaring the islands the Papahānaumokuāwakea Marine National Monument, making it the largest marine protected area in the world, one that will remain untouched for generations. Tourists as well as fishermen will not be able to make the trip out there; federal enforcement officers will ensure only a handful of scientists will be able to conduct research on the reef. (Less than three years later the British government snatched the record of the world’s largest marine reserve away from the Americans when it afforded protections to the Chagos Archipelago, a string of fifty-five islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean.)

Just two weeks before leaving office on January 6, 2009, Bush made one last offering to conservation activists by creating three separate marine monuments in the Pacific that will protect some of the most pristine parts of the sea. The three reserves—which include the islands Sala has chronicled in the central Pacific and a long stretch along the world’s deepest underwater canyon, the Mariana Trench—total 195,280 square miles, an area that even surpasses the Papahānaumokuāwakea Marine National Monument. The waters surrounding the Mariana Trench and those at Kingman Reef boast some of the highest densities of sharks on earth. And while the new monuments, like the one in Hawaii, didn’t amount to a very heavy political lift, it meant Bush had to defy Vice President Dick Cheney and the U.S. recreational fishing lobby. These groups, and the vice president, argued the president had no right to deny American citizens the right to take their rod and reel to the farthest corners of U.S. territory. In the end Bush decided that he did.

I have wanted to visit the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the northern Marianas for years: now I will likely never go. But that’s beside the point—the sharks will be there. They were here long before we arrived, they are unlike anything else on earth, and they, more than any other living thing, embody what is profound and beautiful about the sea.

In 1858, Lieuenant Joseph Christmas Ives, the first American official to visit the Grand Canyon, made a comment about the vista before him that seems quaint in retrospect. “The region last explored is, of course, altogether valueless,” he said. “It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless region. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.” Ives was terribly wrong about the idea that the Grand Canyon would be “forever unvisited and undisturbed.” But perhaps those words can still be applied to places like the Northwest Hawaiian, the northern Mariana, the Phoenix, and the Chagos islands.


Boris Worm, a child of the 1970s, grew up in Hamburg. When he went scuba diving, he had a simple choice: dive in either the Baltic or the North Sea. Both had been degraded in the centuries before he was born. As Worm puts it, “I just grew up with these really low expectations of the ocean.” He lives in Nova Scotia now: while it’s the New World, so to speak, its seas have been plundered as well. But Worm has traveled to places like the Line Islands, diving deep until the sharks surround him in the way that they encircled Enric Sala.

“It’s like growing up in a really poor neighborhood, and then you begin to see what else is out there,” he says now. “You’re being continually surprised by how rich the world can be.”

Even some of the most remote areas of the ocean have come under assault. Scientists have determined the abundance of sharks in the Chagos Archipelago declined 90 percent between 1975 and 2006, mainly due to illegal poaching.9 The area has not been tightly patrolled, historically, and the incentive to steal sharks will stay high as long as the price for shark fins continues to hover at exorbitant levels. But the area is still relatively pristine, and experts estimate that the new protections will save at least sixty thousand sharks a year. So it stands a real chance of recovering.

At the time of the Papahānaumokuāwakea monument designation, Ed Case was the Hawaii congressman whose district encompassed the archipelago: he lobbied hard to save the place even though he hadn’t had a chance to venture out there. I spoke to Case the day before the president made his official announcement, because I had gotten a tip it was going to happen. The House Democrat had criticized Bush on plenty of occasions, but this time he gave him full credit for performing what Case described as “the most revolutionary act by any president, any administration, in terms of marine resources.”

Toward the end of our conversation, Case and I chatted about how neither of us had traveled to the atoll. It was a rare moment in politics, he noted, when policy makers could agree to protect something without a specific payoff. Bush’s decision would not usher in a new era of ecotourism; the Northwest Hawaiian Islands would never become a catchy, picturesque symbol for America like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. It simply would exist, undamaged, with all of its wondrous creatures swimming below the surface.

“We are all going to have to take it on faith that it’s that special, because … most of us will never see it, and we never should see it,” he told me. “We’re just going to have to let it go.”

But even this doesn’t capture the full complexity of what we must do for the ocean. We are changing the natural world through our actions at such an unprecedented rate that we will have to recalibrate them in order to restore some sort of balance. The remedy Bush provided with Papahānaumokuāwakea was just a partial answer, after all, because on his eight-year watch America’s greenhouse gas emissions rose unchecked by any national limits. At the current rate we are increasing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere at a hundred times their historic rate, and the warmer and more acidic seas that come in the wake of these emissions may no longer be hospitable to coral reefs within a matter of decades. If these reefs disappear, so will the sharks and the other marine creatures that depend on them. And a team of scientists from Dalhousie University has calculated that warmer sea temperatures account for a 40 percent decline since 1950 in the microscopic marine algae known as phytoplankton. Since phytoplankton forms the basis of the ocean’s food chain, this climate-related trend has tremendous implications for both sharks and their prey.10

Any significant environmental issue involving humans—climate change, habitat destruction, overfishing, name the problem—comes down to a question of choices. In almost every question, there’s a cost either way: you can produce cheap energy but simultaneously exacerbate global warming, and the rise of industrial fishing methods has caused fisheries across the globe to crash. Advocates on both sides of these issues often gloss over these questions to bolster their cause, by implying that pursuing a particular course is inevitable, rather than an act of will.

The best way to pierce through these skewed arguments is to look at the evidence, recognize that our actions have consequences, and weigh the costs and benefits of our current course of action versus an alternative path. While sometimes environmental trends are difficult to identify—the fact that fishery managers used to not count what shark species were landed on their shores complicates these estimates—researchers have become increasingly sophisticated about calculating the state of sharks today. And the fact is they’re in trouble. The average species exists on this planet for six million years. For millennia, sharks have outcompeted their rivals and defied these odds. Now their survival is uncertain.

Deciding to save them entails a choice, and it is not a pain-free option. For many in Asia, it means finding substitutes for a delicacy that allows them to impress their business partners, relatives, or friends. For some of the world’s poorest fishermen, whether they live in Baja or Indonesian Papua, it necessitates another source of income, be it ecotourism or a different, sustainable fishery. Curbing global warming—which could devastate both coral reefs and the sea’s smallest creatures in the decades to come—will entail putting a price on carbon, most likely, which will drive up energy prices in the near term, and perhaps for good. And for the men who head out on monster fishing tours with Mark the Shark, it translates into discovering some other sort of activity to bolster their sense of manhood.

Saving sharks, it turns out, requires that we both confront one of our most primordial fears and reevaluate the way we envision the world around us. This is not to say that we must become environmental extremists and place the fish that roam the sea above our own species. It is to recognize that sharks are among us, and while we are radically different creatures, we are about to decide whether we will coexist or not. Despite the occasional strike sharks launch at humans, the choice is ours, not theirs.