On June 20th 1975, Jaws, a film directed by Steven Spielberg, opened in cinemas in America. The story of a great white shark terrorising a New England resort town became an instant blockbuster and made thousands of people afraid to go into the water. It also made the great white shark – and virtually all sharks – the target for a cruel campaign of hunting that has brought many of the species to the brink of extinction. In the waters off the U.S. eastern seaboard, populations of many species of sharks have dropped by 50 percent and some have fallen by as much as 90 percent as people saw it as almost a duty to wipe out these ‘man-eaters’.
The story was inspired by a deadly rampage of a rogue great white shark on swimmers along the New Jersey shoreline and in a nearby creek during the summer of 1916. Stories of American sailors in World War II being attacked by sharks after their ships had been sunk by Japanese submarines (also described in the film) greatly extended the reputation of this fearsome predator.
Sadly, Jaws cemented a perception in the minds of many people that sharks were stalking, vengeful killing machines with a taste for human flesh. This reputation remains entrenched in the public psyche nearly 40 years after the movie’s release. The idea of a shark attack strikes at a primal human fear because we do not know what lies beneath the surface of the water. However, the likelihood of being attacked by a shark is incredibly remote – one in 11.5 million. Bees, wasps and snakes kill more people every year than sharks. In America alone, some 43,000 people are injured every year by toilets: by comparison, sharks injure about 13!
The film was based on the book of the same name and its author, Peter Benchley, has devoted his life since the publication to righting the wrongs that he has done to sharks. As far as his conscience is concerned, I am reminded of a quote attributed to the science fiction editor John Campbell "You cannot ever do only one thing: every action has multiple effects – some good, some not-so-good." The novel Jaws that started it all may have had some initial not-so-good consequences for sharks, but it seems to me that the overall effect has been positive. One inadvertent benefit linked with this calamitous drop in shark numbers was that scientists became aware of the need to learn more about sharks. This resulted in increased funding for shark research, improving our understanding of shark biology. Up until that point, there was virtually no funding for sharks, because they were not thought particularly interesting to humans, not being a major food fish — they were regularly regarded as a pest or nuisance that ate the baits or catches of commercial fishermen.
It seems likely that the more enlightened, more tolerant view of sharks many of us hold today ultimately owes much to Jaws. While the unfortunate, knee-jerk reaction to the film was a regrettable increase in the mass slaughter of sharks, eventually our unwarranted shark paranoias have been replaced with new knowledge and a greatly increased appreciation of sharks as wildlife. On the balance of things, Jaws was a positive thing for sharks because, as a direct and indirect consequence of that film, the odds favouring the future survival of these animals is very much improved.