Emperors of the Deep|
Sharks-the Ocean's Most Mysterious, Most Misunderstood, and Most Important Guardians
HarperOne, 2019, 320 pp, HC, $25.99
William McKeever's Emperors of the Deep is a serious look at the ocean's dependency on sharks. How they, as apex predators, help to maintain the diversity and health of the seas, including coral reefs, and in their absence how the cascading effect will result in not only harming the ocean, but also humans. It is a call to action for all who want to conserve the failing vitality of our oceans.
Sharks have gotten a bad rap. From the book and movie "Jaws" and subsequent coverage of sharks as man-eaters they are at the bottom of human compassion. The writer of "Jaws" came to regret his novel and said if he could do it over he "would have written (the shark) as the victim, for world wide, sharks are more the oppressed than the oppressors." Humans right now kill 100 million sharks a year. This is due to recreational fishing, commercial fishing, and they are killed as by product of the tuna industry. Mckeever notes that in this industry there are in fact more sharks than tuna actually killed.
Unfortunately, because our inherent fear of sharks we humans simply haven't considered their importance in the ecosystem, at least enough. There are shark advocates, including McKeever who founded in 2019 Safeguard the Seas, and Greenpeace. McKeever introduces us to some of them in his book. However with the massive killings of the fish, they are at their lowest population levels in the 450 million years of their existence.
Another byproduct of commercial fishing is the human suffering. Many people are trafficked and used as slaves or indentured servants on these ships. Because they are unable to actually "earn" money they resort to shark finning. Out at sea there is little oversight. Shark fin soup is still very popular. The easiest way to obtain the fins is to chop them off of a live shark and drop the de-finned animal overboard. With no fins the fish sinks to the ocean floor and suffocates to death. This is to save money, some countries have laws where you have to bring the entire fish to port in order to gather the fins, however, filling a hold with the entire fish is too expensive. This circular torture- the torture of the trafficked fishermen who then resort to shark finning is almost inconceivable. However China and other countries seem to turn a blind eye to these atrocities.
McKeever also introduces us into the mysterious life of sharks. Through research and real life experiences we learn that sharks have social lives, they are not the solitary eating machines we have envisioned. They work together at times and have "an active preference to be social". While some species of shark, when born, are on their own, others actually learn behavior from each other. Some young sharks school together in a way of protection from predators, but beyond that they were found to create social bonds. This groundbreaking discovery poses several questions. Does this social behavior mean sharks are more cognizant and less the purely instinctive animal we presumed them to be? If so, we must work harder to understand them.
McKeever relies strongly on the fact that sharks are inherent to the oceans health. If the shark goes, the effect on all the animals of the sea will be impacted so detrimentally that the oceans will not survive in any healthy way. Sharks help keep the oceans clean by eating the dead whales, they keep seal populations down so that fish that feed on sea algae are able to keep the oceans from suffocating. They keep the coral reefs vibrant. If that is not enough to advocate for sharks McKeever adds that sharks are an active tourist draw. People will go to places, much like going on a safari, to dive with sharks. While of course there will be unprincipled people everywhere, there are also well regulated places people can engage with sharks, in cages, or with skate safely. These venues help to educate people about sharks with the bonus of the added revenue to restaurants, hotels and increased employment.
So with all this evidence to keep the shark population healthy, why so little activism? Possibly because of our inherent prejudice, definitely because of our lack of knowledge. After reading Emperors of the Deep, I will be keeping an eye on where my seafood comes from, is it local or sustainable? The label on my tuna can says "dolphin safe" but the shark is forgotten. McKeever's book makes it obvious in many ways that this needs to change.