The jaws of environmental destruction are hard to close


In search of the true story of the dwindling bull shark, British travel writer Edward Marriott takes the reader on a historical, archaeological, environmental, and sociological trek through Nicaragua. The stories he collects are often tragic and dismal, as desperate locals report the demise of their livelihood based on these vanishing animals. "Savage Shores: Life and Death With Nicaragua's Last Shark Hunters" drags a tight net through the entire culture of this troubled area.

From the Spanish Conquistadores, an array of pirates, up through the Civil War and the Sandinistas, this corner of Central America is brought to life through colorful and often sordid word pictures. The author carried no camera, but his vivid descriptions are a continual barrage on the senses. We join him in tasting the salt wind, frying in the heat of the sun, swatting the mosquitoes, and smelling an endless variety of unsavory characters and settings.

One cannot help but admire this writer's willingness to face continual peril in his quest for answers and understanding. Remaining unintimidated, even in a leaky dugout or on precarious footing, Marriott brings together a rich tapestry of tales.

All point to the devastating over-kill of sharks in the early 1970s during a clamor of competition and greed. Thousands of sharks were butchered each year as the high world-wide demand for shark-fin soup created many rich fishermen during a brief decade. Much of the rest of the meat was useful only for fertilizer.

In a country prone to natural disasters, earthquake, and hurricane, and with a history of invaders and genocide, which left only "one twenty-fifth" of the "pure Aztecs," it is disheartening to read of the current struggle with drugs and corruption and of "yet another milestone on the road of exploitation and wanton disregard that distinguished the history of Nicaragua in general."

With the development of organic farming, there appeared hope for economic activity not dependent on the shrinking shark population, yet most land has now been converted to tobacco, "an unchecked, brutal monoculture."

Marriott is no less adept at describing the lives of these fearsome animals. The bull shark is the only one of this species to live in salt and fresh water, making the inland rivers and lakes of Nicaragua as perilous as its Atlantic shores.

The sharks are voracious eaters and can smell blood a mile away. Woe to anyone whose boat capsizes in these waters! During World War II, more sailors "were taken by sharks than had been killed in attacks close to shore in all of recorded history."

Marriott tracked down legends of the earliest people inhabiting the lake areas of Nicaragua and confirmed that sharks were utilized for human sacrificial rituals. Today, it appears that the fishermen who cling to the hope of a shark-revival are the sacrificial victims.

The possibility of a regeneration of the bull shark looks unlikely. Readers are left with the suggestion that perhaps tourism is the only hope left for this country. The ancient port of Granada has "heritage" and possibilities. "But for now," Marriott writes, "still impoverished and mangy, the city belonged to no one but itself."

* Marjorie D. Hamlin is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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