Sharks and Other Fish in the Sea – by Charlotte Canelli

Read the published version of Library Director Charlotte Canelli’s column in the August 23, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Every year sometime in August, most of become aware of Shark Week.  The Discovery Channel started this sensation over 25 years ago. They started it a way to raise awareness about sharks, the fish that terrified at least one generation of swimmers who viewed the 1975 thriller movie, Jaws.  It’s no surprise that in 1987 marine biologists and the Discovery Channel concluded that the shark needed a more wholesome biography!

Shark Week resumes each year as a television spectacle complete with charming marine biologists, plenty of gimmicks, and loads of awesomeness of close-in shots of the fish we love to hate. Some viewers around the world obsess about the weeklong adventure like tennis fans tune in to Wimbledon. About twice as many as those who watch Wimbledon, to be exact.

Sharks have a cartilaginous skeleton which basically means that they are connected by tissue similar to cartilage which is tougher than muscle but not as tough as bones.  There are over 470 species of sharks and their dimensions range from rather small to the biggest fish in the world, or the Whale shark. A shark can live in freshwater. I bet you didn’t want to know that.  I didn’t.

Greg Skomal, a neighbor of ours in Marion, MA, is one of the scientists studying sharks off of New England coast.  A “wisecracking biologist” (as the Boston Globe wrote in the Sunday Globe Magazine this past August 18), Dr. Skomal knows his stuff.  He has operated on the vessel Ocearch that scouts the coastal waters off the Cape, particularly Chatham, and he has been tagging sharks with a team of marine biologists, often videotaped by the Discovery Channel. Working for the Commonwealth in the Marine Fisheries department, Skomal and other scientists hope to discover enough about sharks to keep everyone  – including sharks – safer in the water.

If you’d like to browse a coffee table book or two about sharks, there are dozens of large encyclopedias and living color photographic essays.  If you are looking for great books for children, searching the catalog for sharks brings up hundreds of titles including “The Big Book of Sharks: Shark Week 25 Jawsome Years” (2012).

Susan Casey wrote a gripping account of the sharks that populate the waters off another coast – near the Farallones Islands thirty miles north of San Francisco in “The Devil’s Teeth” (2005).  The islands are nicknamed The Devil’s Teeth, but Casey includes a color photograph of a bite of a surfboard that one shark had for lunch. These waters are dangerous, and journalist Casey details her journey with the Great Whites.

But there are other fish in the sea to read about and for other purposes.  Numerous authors have written about them in recent years, especially species imperiled by overfishing.

This past year, readers for the Massachusetts Center for the Book selected 6 Non-Fiction Must Reads for 2013. Included was Matt Rigney’s “In Pursuit of Giants: One Man’s Global Search for the Last of the Great Fish” (2012).  Rigney has been angling New England waters, particularly Maine, for most of his life. He has delighted in encountering marlin, bluefin tuna and swordfish while far out in the waters off the coast. It is the commercial fishing industry that has disheartened Rigney. He describes the valiant efforts of many to right this story and save the oceans’ giants, “the lions and tigers of the sea”.

Ted Danson, otherwise identified as bartender Sam Malone in Cheers, lives here in New England.  He and others founded the American Oceans Campaign (AOC), an organization with a purpose to warn us about abuses in our oceans. Danson is the author of “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them” (2011).  Not only have we been poisoning our oceans with petroleum, acid, and waste, but we are destroying the ocean’s biosystems with commercial overfishing.  Most of this has occurred over only fifty years. Danson tells us that the delusion that there will be plenty of salmon, swordfish, tuna, and other fish will last longer in the US where we have the means to keep buying and eating them. He, like others, writes about the hope of sustainable fisheries and the promise of enlightened people around the world.

Author Mark Kurlansky has been investigating and writing about fish for several decades.  His books aren’t, of course, daring tales of hunting the Great Whites or tagging them off the coast of Cape Cod.  They are, rather, tales of the history of foraging, fishing and eating a species. His 1997 book “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World” became a global bestseller. (Kurlansky followed his adult book with an enlightening children’s picture book, “A Cod’s Tale” in 2001).  His 2006 book, “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell” tells the story of the oyster that played a tremendous role in New York City’s history and economy.  In 2009, he wrote “The Last Fish Tale” about commercial fishery economy and culture in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  In a book for kids 10 and up that reads like a graphic novel, Kurlansky illustrates the options of sustainable fishing in “A World Without Fish” and persuades them to inform their parents about which fish to buy and eat.

Another author who has focused on fish is Richard Ellis.  “Swordfish: A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator” (2013) and “Tuna: A Love Story” (2008).  Both books ask us to balance our palates with the health of the planet. Ellis has been writing about the inhabitants of the oceans for decades and “The Book of Sharks” (1976) and “Encyclopedia of the Sea” (2000). Two more recent books also call on us to protect the world’s seafood: “Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food” by Paul Greenberg (2011) and “The Perfect Protein: The Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World” by Andy Sharpless and Suzannah Evans (2013).

Sometimes, knowledge is all it takes for us to make modest modifications to our lifestyle to preserve the planet, including the waters of our lakes, rivers and those off of our coasts.  If you’d like to read more about consuming the best protein, seafood and fish, and yet also help maintain life on earth, visit the library or the Minuteman Library catalog.

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