Debunking Shark Myths Through Journalistic Investigation
"When journalists give their audience a sense of how sharks are faring, and how human activities affect them, that provides them with the critical information they need to make policy decisions. That can help shape what happens with shark conservation in the years to come.”
SeaWeb: What was your first experience with a shark?
Juliet Eilperin: I first entered the water with sharks in the spring of 2005, when I jumped into the water off Triangle Rocks in Bimini. As reef sharks zoomed in from all directions to consume the barracuda that researchers had thrown in the water, I was struck by the fact that they seemed totally indifferent to me.
SW: What is your personal relationship with sharks?
JE: I’d describe it as a combination of affection and respect. I admire the way they’re such incredible predators, and their magnificent physical design. But I don’t suffer from the illusion that they actually like humans, even though we might like them.
SW: What do people need to understand about sharks to better realize their importance to the marine environment?
JE: Sharks play an important function as the ocean’s top predator. They both get rid of the sick and the weak, and they keep mid-level predators in check. So in these ways, they help maintain the sea’s natural balance.
SW: Why have sharks been demonized for so long and how do we step away from that idea?
JE: We have an understandable fear of an animal that can strike us without warning, from the deep. But I think we can regain the more nuanced view of sharks people used to have centuries ago, since that’s just a matter of recognizing reality.
SW: What are you doing to further shark conservation?
JE: I wrote a book called “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks,” which Pantheon Books published in June. It unpacks some of the myths associated with sharks.
SW: Sharks are apex predators in the marine ecosystem. What would a disappearance of shark species do for the ocean? How does that affect humans?
JE: While scientists are still researching this, there’s plenty of evidence that reef ecosystems are healthier when there are plenty of sharks around. So it is likely that eliminating the sea’s top predator could disrupt the natural balance. As a result, humans could lose some of the fish they need for food. (Roughly one billion people depend on seafood as their main source of protein.) In addition, healthy oceans help regulate the global climate system.
SW: What can people do to support shark conservation?
JE: They can do a number of things, including refusing to consume shark’s fin soup. There are several groups that engage in shark conservation, whether it’s SeaWeb, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy. And of course, it doesn’t hurt to buy the book “Demon Fish,” so you—or those you know--can learn more about the human-shark relationship. You can also log onto www.demonfishbook.com for more details.
SW: How can journalism help shape our future understanding of and commitment to shark conservation?
JE: The best kind of reporting gives readers, viewers and listeners a sense of what's at stake in a given policy issue. So when journalists give their audience a sense of how sharks are faring, and how human activities affect them, that provides them with the critical information they need to make policy decisions. That can help shape what happens with shark conservation in the years to come.
A born-and-bred Washingtonian, Juliet Eilperin graduated in 1992 magna cum laude from Princeton University, where she received a bachelor’s in Politics with a certificate in Latin American Studies. In March 1998 she joined The Washington Post as its House of Representatives reporter, where she covered the impeachment of Bill Clinton, lobbying, legislation, and five national congressional campaigns.
Since April of 2004 she has served as the Post’s national environmental reporter, reporting on science, policy and politics in areas including climate change, oceans, and air quality. In pursuit of these stories she has gone scuba diving with sharks in the Bahamas, trekking on the Arctic tundra with Selma Hayek and Jake Gyllenhaal, and searching on her hands and knees for rare insects in the caves of Tennessee. She covered the 2008 presidential race, traveling with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, while maintaining her environmental beat, and launched the paper’s Post Carbon blog in December 2009. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010, Ms. Eilperin wrote several investigative pieces exposing the lack of federal oversight over offshore drilling.
In the spring of 2006 Rowman & Littlefield published her first book, “Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives, which has been featured on NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Ms. Eilperin has just completed “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks,” published in June 2011 by Pantheon.