Jaws, responsible for fears despite the fictious aspects of this movie
Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1975, Jaws had moviegoers paralyzed by fear. The story, about a giant great white shark that terrorizes a seaside community, tapped into the most primal of human fears: What unseen creature lurks below the ocean surface?
Millions of beachgoers heeded the advice of the movie's tagline—"Don't go in the water." They filed into theaters instead, and Jaws became the biggest box office hit to date.
To the dismay of many scientists, however, Jaws cemented a perception in the minds of many people that sharks were stalking, killing machines. The reputation remains entrenched in the public psyche 30 years after the movie's release.
"It perpetuated the 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," said George Burgess, a shark biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Burgess says the movie initiated a precipitous decline in U.S. shark populations, as thousands of fishers set out to catch trophy sharks after seeing Jaws.
Later, in the 1980s, commercial fisheries further decimated shark populations.
But the phenomenal popularity of the movie also helped the study of sharks, researchers say. Before Jaws, very little was known about the predators. After the film's release, interest in sharks skyrocketed, resulting in increased funding for shark research.
"On the one hand, the movie did damage to sharks, because people saw them as monsters," said Robert Hueter, who directs the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. "But for scientists, the whole Jaws thing started working in our favor, because of the overexaggerated public interest in these animals."
In the hands of a young director named Steven Spielberg, Jaws, which was based on the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley, was widely hailed as a masterful thriller. Its music score, by John Williams, contains one of the most recognized themes in movie-music history.
Filming was plagued by technical problems. Scenes with a mechanical shark had to be cut, because it did not look believable enough. That, however, only made the movie scarier, heightening the unsettled feeling of helplessness that many moviegoers felt toward the beast, which remained largely unseen.
"The fear of being eaten is ingrained in people," said Mike Heithaus, a marine biology professor at Florida International University in Miami. "If we feel like we have some control or [a] fighting chance, a situation isn't as scary. With sharks there are no trees to climb, and you can't outswim a shark."
Real-life shark attacks, though widely publicized, are extremely rare. People in U.S. coastal areas, for example, are about a hundred times more likely to be struck and killed by lightning than killed by a shark. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File, there were 61 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide in 2004, resulting in seven deaths.
"Those are ridiculously low numbers when you consider the billions and billions of human hours spent in the water every year," said Burgess, who curates the Shark File.
The number of shark attacks has increased over the past several decades, but that is because humans are going into the water in increasing numbers.
Humans are not part of sharks' normal prey.
"Most sharks don't attack prey that is close to their own size, and they can be wary of strange situations or objects they're not used to, like humans," Heithaus, the Miami marine biologist, said. "This makes attacks very unlikely, even if a hungry shark sees a person."
But sharks have suffered greatly at human hands. Between 20 to 100 million sharks are killed by fishing each year, according to the Shark File, which is administered by the American Elasmobranch Society, whose members study sharks, skates, and rays. The organization estimates that some shark populations have plummeted 30 to 50 percent.
That decline can be traced in part back to Jaws. In the years after the movie's release, the number of so-called kill tournaments spiked.
"There was a collective testosterone rush that went though the U.S. in the years following Jaws, where guys just wanted to catch these sharks so they could have their pictures taken with their foot on the head of a man-eater and the jaws later displayed on their mantle," Burgess said.
When Jaws premiered, scientists knew little about sharks, partly because they were considered a nuisance by fisheries.
"The most important commercial species always get the biological buck in terms of grants and money," Burgess said. "Nobody cared much about sharks. They ate good fish, so they were considered bad by fisheries."
In the 1980s U.S. commercial fisheries turned their attention to sharks. Commercial overfishing further depleted the number of sharks. As shark populations declined, marine ecosystems suffered.
"As a result, we soon started getting funding from fisheries to do basic research on sharks—how old they get, how fast they grow, how many young they make," Burgess said.
Scientists have since learned that sharks, as apex predators, can affect the entire ocean food chain from their position at its top.
Most people, when they hear the word "shark," may still think of a huge great white shark, like the one in Jaws. In reality, there are more than 375 shark species, and only about a dozen are considered particularly dangerous.
But the public is slowly learning, scientists say.
"In the final analysis, Jaws has been a positive thing for the science of sharks," Hueter said, "because it has elevated the public's interest in these animals."