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Sharks of the Pacific Northwest: Including Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska

By Alessandro De Maddalena, Antonella Preti, Tarik Polansky

Review By Anna Hall

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 156-157 Winter-Spring 2007-2008  | p. 190-1

Humans have instigated the generalized obliteration of large predators for centuries. The severe, routinely fatal penalty that sharks have paid appears to result in large part from social perspectives founded in fear and ignorance. From eradication programs to trophy hunting to the demonstration of wealth and success by providing shark’s fin soup, shark populations worldwide are suffering the consequences of misinformed social opinion. Adding further to these injurious actions is the indiscriminant target and non-target killing of sharks in global fishing operations. The ubiquitous common denominator is often our collective lack of understanding and compassion for this unique taxon of fish.

Sharks of the Pacific Northwest is a first-rate guide to the eighteen species confirmed from the cold Pacific waters of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. Alessandro De Maddalena, Antonella Preti, and Tarik Polansky engage the reader’s respect for these misunderstood creatures who have successfully navigated their way through biological history, radiating to some 479 species (19). The general taxonomic overview provides an appreciation of how, through time, physiological adaptations have allowed sharks to thrive in a diverse array of ecological niches. 

The biological and ecological information presented throughout is relevant and exactly what the title indicates. De Maddalena, Preti, and Polansky introduce the reader to shark taxonomy, evolution, morphology, physiology, and ethology in a well-organized and sequential manner that in no way resembles that of a textbook. The language is clear and coherent, and associated images and illustrations allow even a novice naturalist to fully understand the distillation of scientific material. Sharks of the Pacific Northwest delivers in each chapter by providing an appropriate level of detail without an overwhelming amount of scientific jargon.

This beautifully illustrated book successfully merges chapters of biological and ecological narrative with a dichotomous classification key more often found in field guides. Though it is unlikely that most readers would ever have the opportunity to identify any of these sharks in the field, key features highlighted for each species further contribute to the reader’s appreciation of shark diversity. The book is useful for residents and visitors alike as the presentation is general enough to attract a wide audience of natural history enthusiasts, yet the regional details are such that local audiences will garner even more. The book certainly contributes to the available literature on the coastal and oceanic marine life of the Pacific Northwest, and its explanatory presentations are firmly founded in science.

The overview of global research initiatives is a useful addition that enables one to connect the familiar human community with the more mysterious realm of the shark. De Maddalena, Preti, and Polansky also highlight some historical accounts of shark/human interactions in specific localities throughout the Pacific Northwest and provide details that counter common misconceptions. Sharks of the Pacific Northwest concludes with ecological summaries for each of the eighteen species, ranging from the familiar piked dogfish (or spiny dogfish) (90) to the largely unknown longnose catshark of Oregon (114). A level-headedness prevails throughout these summaries, which is particularly evident with regard to the historically more feared species such as the shortfin mako (107) and great white shark (104). Nevertheless, the authors do not make light of the species-specific threat to humans.

The only element that detracts from Sharks of the Pacific Northwest is the unfortunate misspelling of several invertebrate taxa in the generalized diet sections of five shark species. Nevertheless, the contribution this book makes by educating its readers in a non-sensationalistic manner about the life of local sharks outweighs any oversights in spelling. From start to finish, the book aims to improve knowledge and to dispel misconceptions.

Sharks of the Pacific Northwest is an excellent resource that should begin to turn the tide of public opinion, at least in the western United States and Canada. Overtones of shark conservation and respect pervade each chapter. However, descriptions of the recent rounds of anthropogenic-induced mortality raise the question of whether these extant species have the ability to survive. De Maddalena, Preti, and Polansky clearly communicate the inherent value these cartilaginous fish have to the marine ecosystem. This book is an informative and important addition to the available non-specialist literature on coastal cartilaginous fish of the eastern north Pacific Ocean, and it will enhance any wildlife enthusiast’s library.