Jaws: 40 Years Later is it Safe to Return to the Water?

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” – Chief Brody

Arguably the most notable line from one of the most iconic movies in cinema history.  This year, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, based on the book by Peter Benchley, celebrates its 40th anniversary and theatres all across the nation are bringing the classic film back to the big screen.  Jaws has inspired countless horror stories, blockbuster movies and even this 30 second clip acted out by animated rabbits. While Jaws is an indelible part of Hollywood’s legacy, the movie unfortunately inspired shark hunting and culls around the world that have decimated populations of this essential animal in marine ecosystems. Between the hype and history, Jaws’ 40th anniversary is the perfect opportunity to talk about sharks and shark conservation.

Sharks are animals that both fascinate and terrify many people. Truth be told, sharks have much more to fear in humans than we do in sharks. It is estimated that about 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year. Some sharks are finned regularly for soup while others are caught in recreational shark fishing contests. Shark culling programs kill sharks that come close to shore in search of food. In the most recent Western Australian cull, 172 sharks were caught, the largest 50 of whom were killed in an attempt to make the country’s surrounding water safer. Of the 50 killed “none of the creatures captured were great white sharks, the species believed to be responsible for most of the recent fatal attacks in Western Australia, which left seven people dead in the past three years.”

 

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Oceanic Whitetip Shark swims past biologist Wes Pratt inside the shark cage. Bahamas. Photo Credit: Brian Skerry

 

“Those beaches will be open for this weekend!” – Mayor Vaughn

While shark encounters can be tragic, in the United States less than one person dies every two years from encounters with sharks. According to the International Shark Attack File, in 2014 there were 72 global, “unprovoked attacks” by sharks. These are defined as “incidents where an attack on a live human by a shark occurs in its natural habitat without human provocation of the shark.” Only three of these were fatal– none within the United States. To put this in perspective, annually: 2,000 people die from running traffic lights within the United States; around 6,000 die from tripping and falling within their own home, falling coconuts kill about 150 people worldwide every year and 24 people are killed by champagne corks. So you are more likely to be killed uncorking champagne than by a shark. Shark encounters do not always end in hatred for the species; there are many cases of survivors overcoming their tragedy and becoming shark advocates.

“What we are dealing with is an eating machine!” – Matt Hooper

Four decades later, Jaws is still scaring people out of the water. University of Florida shark biologist George Burgess stated: “[Jaws] perpetuated myths about sharks as man-eaters and bloodthirsty killers…even though the odds of an individual entering the sea and being attacked by a shark are almost infinitesimal.” The movie falsely painted sharks as mindless killers determined to hunt down humans for food.

The backlash on sharks was immediate. The author of the book Jaws, Peter Benchley, quickly realized the story’s negative impact on the species.  As an avid diver, Benchley began noticing more shark carcasses during his excursions and his desire to conserve them grew. In a 1995 piece that Benchley wrote for the Smithsonian magazine, he stated that if he were to do it over again, the shark “would have to be written as the victim, for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed then the oppressors.” Benchley spent the rest of his life advocating for sharks, regretting the effect his book had on their livelihoods. To this day, his wife Wendy Benchley remains a renowned global voice for protecting sharks and safeguarding our seas.

 

A Great Hammerhead, (Sphyrna mokarran), swims near the surface in The Bahamas near sunset.
A Great Hammerhead, (Sphyrna mokarran), swims near the surface in The Bahamas near sunset. Photo Credit: Brian Skerry

 

“Show me the way to go home.” – Quint, Hooper, and Brody

What Jaws did for fear, it also did for fascination.

People have become increasingly interested in sharks and their biology. This year Shark Week is having its longest run ever, and hopefully the most scientifically accurate. Jaws is credited with inspiring a generation of marine biologists who want to be just as cool as Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss). The movie boosted shark research and funding. As the world’s fascination with sharks grew after Jaws, so did the shark ecotourism industry. Today, sharks are worth more alive as wildlife for observation than dead as a gelatinous glob in soup. As fear transforms into conservation practices and research, we stand a chance at protecting these vital top predators from extinction.

Research has shown the importance of sharks for maintaining the delicate balance of the ocean. Shark sanctuaries, a map of which can be seen here on MPAtlas.org, have become increasingly popular in helping to conserve vital shark habitats.  Ensuring proper enforcement and funding of these regions is key to protecting sharks and the ecosystems they inhabit.

“I used to hate the water.” – Chief Brody

“I can’t imagine why.” – Matt Hooper

Forty years after Jaws, we now know the risk of encountering a shark is greatly overstated, though some very small risk remains. Our hope is that when the credits roll after the 40th anniversary showing, people will run to the beaches, not from them…that the crowd will root for the giant great white on screen and do everything in their power to ensure the species’ survival. Shark tourism is becoming a very popular industry, with divers and eco-tourists flocking to shark sanctuaries around the world in hopes of getting a glimpse of these majestic creatures.

How can you help?

Sharks need protection in the ecosystems they inhabit. An impactful way you can help sharks is by supporting the Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES). The Global Ocean Refuge System is a strategic, science-based way to safeguard marine ecosystems, including those that sharks inhabit. GLORES is designed to catalyze strong protection for at least 20% of the ecosystems in each marine biogeographic region, enough to avert mass extinction. Global Ocean Refuges will serve as safe havens for the world’s diverse marine life. These regions will ensure habitat conservation in many areas sharks call home.

Cover Photo Copyright: Universal Pictures

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