Photo: lwpkommunikacio / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

'Jaws' Made Us Believe Some Ludicrous Shark Myths—And It Had Devastating Real-World Effects

How terrified were you to dip your toes in the ocean after you saw Jaws for the first time? Unfortunately, the lies perpetuated by Jaws didn't just scare you, they actually sparked a shark-hunting frenzy that decimated the shark population worldwide - and it still hasn't recovered. The Hollywood blockbuster changed our perception on sharks, making people needlessly terrified of these terrific animals.

True, sharks do kill people, but it's an absurdly tiny number. You're more likely to die falling out of bed than you are to be killed by a shark! And, they're a vital part of our world. You definitely don't want to see what our planet looks like without them.

There's no denying that Jaws is awesome, but it's responsible for some ridiculous shark myths, and the attitudes presented in the film caused some serious ecological harm which has taken decades to repair.

Photo: lwpkommunikacio / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

  • 'Jaws' Made Shark Hunting Contests Sexy

    'Jaws' Made Shark Hunting Contests Sexy
    Photo: razvan.orendovici / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Now under the assumption that all sharks were vengeful man-killers hungry for human flesh, fishermen around the country saw an opportunity to play the hero. Shortly after the movie debuted, fishermen killed sharks by the thousands, showing that they could bring down these maligned supervillains. Fishing tournaments were set up, rewarding those who could catch the biggest or meanest-looking shark. Some beach cities even encouraged fishermen to kill all sharks in their vicinity, so beachgoers would feel more comfortable.

    As you might guess, this dealt a devastating blow to all shark populations. George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, said, "The movie helped initiate that decline by making it sexy to go catch sharks."

  • 'Jaws' Made Shark Attacks Seem Far More Common Than They Actually Are

    'Jaws' Made Shark Attacks Seem Far More Common Than They Actually Are
    Photo: jennofarc / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    When Jaws hit movie theaters in 1975, there hadn't been many other movies to feature sharks as the predominant villain. Jaws presented its antagonist, a great white shark, as an unstoppable killing machine. It was emotionless and evil, pretty much the perfect villain. 

    While the movie brought in three Academy Awards, and was even nominated for best picture, this popularity spelled bad news for the world shark population, particularly great whites. Sharks were not well understood by the general public and, because Jaws was based on true events (although loosely), it sent people into a panic. Could killer sharks be lurking at the local beach? People weren't taking any chances, dealing a blow to many beach communities.

    Jaws made many beachgoers frightened of shark attacks but, as The Florida Museum point out, it was an outsized fear:

    "Shark attack is a potential danger that must be acknowledged by anyone that frequents marine waters, but it should be kept in perspective. Bees, wasps and snakes are responsible for far more fatalities each year. In the United States deaths occur up to 30 more times from lighting strikes per year, than from shark attacks per year. For most people, any shark-human interaction is likely to occur while swimming or surfing in nearshore waters. From a statistical standpoint the chances of dying in this area are markedly higher from many other causes (such as drowning and cardiac arrest) than from shark attack."

    Even though we have hard data telling us that we don't need to be afraid of sharks, it's still hard to shake the culture of fear that Jaws left in its wake.

  • Partially As A Result Of 'Jaws,' We Kill Sharks Way More Than They Kill Us

    Partially As A Result Of 'Jaws,' We Kill Sharks Way More Than They Kill Us
    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / flickr / No known copyright restrictions

    In the years following the release of Jaws, studies show that the number of large sharks fell by fifty percent along the eastern seaboard of the United States! Even after the movie was well into its numerous sequels, humans were still enjoying their shark-killing spree. Between 1986 and 2000, in the Northwest Atlantic ocean, hammerhead shark populations declined 89%, great white sharks declined 79%, and tiger sharks declined 65%.

    We kill around one hundred million sharks per year; they, on the other hand, attack only about 19 people a year (typically mistaking the person for a seal) and kill less than one person a year on average. 

  • Contrary To What You See In 'Jaws,' Many Sharks Are Incapable of Harming Humans

    Contrary To What You See In 'Jaws,' Many Sharks Are Incapable of Harming Humans
    Photo: yllan / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Picture that ominous shark fin slicing through the water before a bloody kill - only not so much. The vast majority of sharks are bottom feeders and don't display their fin above the water, and, of the over five hundred different species of shark, many of them are more interested in microorganisms and plankton than they are in big game or even fish.

    In fact, the biggest of all sharks, the whale shark and the basking shark, live entirely on food smaller than your smallest toe. Even if a shark does eat flesh, it doesn't mean it's out to get you. Ninety-seven percent of sharks are actually unable to harm humans, either because their mouths are not built for biting us, or because they're too small to hurt us in any significant way.

  • Unlike The Great White In 'Jaws,' Most Sharks Are Smaller Than The Arm You're Worried They'll Eat

    Unlike The Great White In 'Jaws,' Most Sharks Are Smaller Than The Arm You're Worried They'll Eat
    Photo: janna487 / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    People tend to focus on the giant "killer" varieties of animals, capable of swallowing a child in one bite. And while the plankton-eating whale shark can get up to 46 feet in length, most sharks are far smaller, with the vast majority being downright tiny in size. The smallest shark is actually only about eight inches long, tip to tail. As you might guess, it can't do much damage to humans. 

    It's worth noting that, because these smaller sharks are less likely to be hunted, they are also more likely to survive, meaning that smaller sharks are much more common than larger ones.

  • Shark Hunting Inspired By 'Jaws' Led To Diminished Shark Populations

    Shark Hunting Inspired By 'Jaws' Led To Diminished Shark Populations
    Photo: lightmatter / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Sharks are an apex predator, meaning they have no natural enemies (except, arguably, man). As such, they keep various fish and plankton populations in check. If sharks were not around, these populations would grow out of control. They would overfeed, killing off other species, and creating an imbalance in ecosystems throughout the ocean.

    As shark populations have diminished, skates and rays, two of the main food sources for sharks, have flourished. As a result, this has had catastrophic effects on the fishing industry in the Chesapeake Bay. 

    If you're a fisherman or even just like eating fish, it's time to face facts: we need sharks.