Juliet Eilperin is a national environmental reporter for The Washington Post. Her new book is all about sharks. It’s titled Demon Fish, but it’s not hard to glean that the book is sympathetic to the plight of yet another victim of humanity’s craven excesses.

This time, it would seem especially so. Listen to what Eilperin had to say on the subject during a conversation with NPR’s Diane Rehm last Wednesday:

There are a few different reasons why sharks are being killed in massive numbers worldwide, so one of the ways is through the targeting of their fins. Sharks fin soup is a delicacy in Asia; it's popular not only in China, but throughout Asia, particularly in countries where there are large Chinese populations, and it's really a prestige dish.

The idea is you serve it at a wedding or a business meal to show that you're willing to pay enough money to have shark fin soup, and also that you have managed to conquer this beast that we hate. And in that context, you have something — you know, scientists estimate up to 73 million sharks a year are caught just to supply the shark fin [soup industry] … by contrast, sharks kill between four and five people worldwide.

That’s four to five people a year — a year — worldwide. Not very many, is it? And yet our fear has a way of perverting reality, doesn’t it? We seem to assume that we’re likely to be next on a shark’s menu on any given dive. Almost as if we thought sharks had it in for us. And yet, truth be told, it’s really more that we have it in for them.

I figure it’s just that we don’t like surprises, is all. And shark attacks are surprising. Jaws taught us that, if nothing else. As an avid student of pop culture I can attest to that.

But is it fair?

Of course not. But that doesn’t keep us from taking our Spielberg-fueled, us-against-them hate to the oceans. It certainly doesn’t keep the fishing industry from caring a whit over whether or not their nets nab a few extra unwanted sharks as it goes for tuna, swordfish and other big-buck predators. Nor does it keep the Chinese (mostly) from wanting their daughter’s wedding to scream "I am luxury!" to the rafters.

Because nothing says "money" like an italicized menu line item that reads, "shark fin soup." Or so they tell me.

Which is the biggest problem, because while fishermen may accept shark in their nets for a little extra income, the minuscule market for this meat means it’s not worth their while. Not when you consider the big overhead cost of chilling and processing meat at sea.

But taking a shark aboard for a clandestine slice-and-dice? Oh, that’s doable. Absolutely. Since all they really want is the fin — so they can say they bested the beast and dined on their exploits — all they really need do is take out a diving knife and voilà! Twenty bucks a piece, per crew member, in the bank.

Quite an incentive for many. Problem is, fins aren’t dispensable. Sharks need them. Need them bad. Without them they lose lots of blood, can’t navigate, fall to the ocean floor … and die … because our current market really doesn’t have much use for the rest of them.

Yes, the shark fin soup truly is a trophy dinner and not much else. And by all accounts, it’s so heavily flavored with pork and chicken you’d have an ice cube’s chance in Hell of tasting the real deal, anyway. But as with all else that screams "luxury," it’s not about rationality or reality. Rather, it’s more to do with common perception and other distasteful human conceptions than with whether it’s actually tasty.

All the rational among us can hope for is that all future sought-after items fall into the category of "do no harm" possessions. Unfortunately, as with diamonds, seal coats, tiger teeth and white rhino horns, elusiveness and rarity (environmental, political, financial or otherwise) would seem to be an inducement to rape rather than a call to responsible action.

Thank you, Ms. Eilperin, for bringing the issue to the fore.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: Dusky Whaler Shark by richard ling

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