Thank You Jaws! The Upside for Sharks 40 Years Later

By: Tobey Curtis, guest blogger

When Jaws hit theaters 40 years ago this week, it changed everything for sharks.  Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s monster shark novel is now so iconic that it requires no introduction.  The thrumming, two-note cello riff can still send shivers down your spine even if someone starts humming it in your backyard pool.

steven_spielberg_jaws

A young Steven Spielberg hangs out with “Bruce,” the mechanical White Shark and star of Jaws.

We have all heard the negative side of the story.  Jaws ruined swimming at the beach for millions over the last four decades.  It misrepresented sharks as mindless, vengeful animals.  It also fueled the growth of trophy shark fishing, contributing to the declines of many shark populations.  To this day, false perceptions of shark behavior based on the film pervade our culture.  The fear of being bitten by a shark, despite the negligible statistical risks, still influences public safety, conservation, and management policies around the world.  The so-called “Jaws Effect” has been so widely absorbed by the public that the villainous “bite, bite, bite” stereotype still dominates how sharks are portrayed in the media and the public eye.

However, despite the long-lasting damage to public perceptions of sharks prompted by Jaws, the good side of the story is often overlooked.  It turns out that Jaws has resulted in some noteworthy positive outcomes for sharks.  Here are a few Jaws impacts that shark enthusiasts, shark conservationists, and sharks themselves should be grateful for.

  1. Peter Benchley Became a Vocal Shark Conservation Advocate

I hope that ‘Jaws’ will have brought sharks into the public interest at a time when we desperately need to reevaluate our care for the environment.” – Peter Benchley

SharkTrouble

As explained in his part-autobiographical book, Shark Trouble, Benchley had always been an avid swimmer and diver, and loved encountering sharks in the wild.  In the decades following Jaws, he witnessed the expansion of global shark fisheries and learned of the negative impacts that overfishing was having on shark populations.  His lifelong fascination and respect for sharks, as well as the fame brought to him by the success of Jaws, compelled him to be an active advocate for shark conservation until his death in 2006.  His wife, Wendy, continues to work with ocean conservation organizations to promote the protection of sharks around the world.  Their efforts, and those of the organizations they support, have helped turn the tide of the shark conservation movement in recent years.

  1. Jaws Inspired a Generation of Shark Scientists

A considerable number of marine biologists that grew up in the post-Jaws era (including myself) were not really terrified by the movie, but were in awe of the giant shark.  While most people became nervous to get into the ocean after seeing Jaws, the film had the opposite effect for a minority of people.  Many became inspired to study sharks and other fish.  They wanted to be a marine biologist like Matt Hooper (played in the film by Richard Dreyfuss).  A lot of us even picked up the sarcasm and facial hair.  Many of these scientists, fascinated by Spielberg’s monster shark, are now at the forefront of shark research and conservation around the world.

Hooper_JAWS2

Today’s stereotypical shark scientist.

  1. Jaws Gave a Boost to Shark Research

When Jaws was released, it only partly exaggerated our understanding of sharks at that time.  The territorial “rogue” shark reflected our collective ignorance of shark biology and behavior.  However, having helped inspire many future shark scientists and raising public awareness (and worries) about the sharks that live in our oceans, Jaws, to some extent, contributed to the impressive growth of shark science over the last 40 years.  A quick web search indicates that there has been a 400% increase in the number of published shark studies since the 1970s.  The White Shark is actually one of the best-studied of the 500+ living shark species.  We now know that the mindless eating machine portrayal of sharks is a complete myth.  White Sharks, in particular, are now known to be cautious and curious animals, despite their role as a mega-predator.  They are also not territorial, but transit thousands of miles each year between foraging hot spots – which are composed mainly of seals and fish, not people.

  1. Shark Ecotourism is Booming

 “Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies” – Quint

For most people, Jaws was the first time they saw a shark cage.  The underwater footage of real White Sharks used in the film was spectacular.  Recreational scuba diving was still in its infancy in 1975, and diving with sharks in particular was limited to an elite few.  Now there are shark ecotourism operations all over the world, including White Shark cage diving experiences in Australia, South Africa, and the Pacific coast of Mexico and the US.  Shark ecotourism revenues are valued in the hundreds of millions, in US dollars, annually worldwide, becoming a viable alternative to fishing in many places.  People that go on a shark dive, regardless of the species, tend to leave the experience with a favorable view of sharks.  When they see firsthand that the Jaws image of sharks is a myth, they are then more likely to support shark conservation efforts.

white-shark-diving-in-guadalupe-island

Cage diving with White Sharks has become hugely popular in the decades since Jaws.

  1. Jaws Helped Prioritize Protections for Great White Sharks

Before Jaws, the White Shark was really just another shark.  After the movie was released, it became an icon.  “Great White” became a household term that came to represent almost any shark species in the public’s mind.  Despite the White Shark being a villain in Jaws, the general public became so familiar with the species that when it became apparent in the early 1990s that it was in need of conservation, it became the first shark in the world to receive widespread legal protections.  Recent research shows that White Shark populations in the US and elsewhere are now starting to rebound in response to these protections.

Skomal_Curly_reduced

White Sharks are cautious and curious predators, not monsters.

Jaws inspired fear in many, but fascination in many others.  Damage has been done.  But those on the fascination end of the spectrum have been working hard for the benefit of sharks, and have really started to make an impact.  There is still a lot of work to be done to improve shark conservation and perceptions, but there really is an upside for sharks after all of this time.

So, thank you, Peter Benchley.  Thank you, Steven Spielberg.  Thank you, Jaws!

Be sure to like The Fisheries Blog on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@FisheriesBlog).

Tobey is a PhD Candidate, School for Marine Science and Technology, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth

Follow Tobey on Twitter @Mojoshark

References:

Curtis et al. (2014) Seasonal distribution and historic trends in abundance of white sharks, Carcharodon carcharias, in the western North Atlantic Ocean.  PLoS ONE 9(6): e99240.

Gallagher and Hammerschlag (2011) Global shark currency: The distribution, frequency, and economic value of shark ecotourism. Current Issues in Tourism 14(8):797-812.

Klimley and Ainley (1996) Great White Sharks: The Biology of Carcharodon carcharias.  Academic Press, San Diego. 517 pp.

Neff (2014) The Jaws Effect: How movie narratives are used to influence policy responses to shark bites in Western Australia.  Australian Journal of Political Science 50(1):114-127.

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