In Jaws, a bloodthirsty, great white shark relentlessly pursues three men trying to protect their small New England town. The movie is a classic, albeit grossly inaccurate. But why does this one movie, despite its phony puppet and pseudoscientific explanation of biology, continue to scare us? It’s probably not just the killer soundtrack. It may be because the behemoth in the movie is hell-bent on being just what it is: a movie monster from the deep, intent on feasting on unsuspecting villagers. In an age when humans kill around 100 million sharks a year, this belief in a shark’s intent on harming humans not only keeps us afraid of wading into the ocean, but it can lead us to support laws that wipe out sharks. Almost 50 years after the release of Jaws, it is time to retire the idea of the self-aware killer; focusing on the realities of intent may be just the way to do it.
Why fear of sharks matters
Being afraid of animals with big teeth seems pretty logical if you want to avoid bodily harm. When this fear begins to impact the health of the ocean, however, we have a problem. The presence of sharks in the ocean is sometimes considered a sign of a healthy ecosystem. But while sharks are often near the top of the food chain and have few natural predators, sharks reproduce slowly and have a hard time making up for the number of sharks we kill. We fear the 766 recorded shark bites between 2007 and 2016, but this pales in comparison to the number of sharks we kill.
A new paper by Dr. Pepin-Neff and Dr. Wynter from the University of Sydney examines our relationship with sharks, both physical and mental. The researchers start by exploring how fear of sharks has led us to kill in an attempt to keep our beaches safe. In the state of Western Australia, for example, the government set up a three-month trial program to prevent bites. It installed a series of drum lines with bait for sharks near beaches. When the sharks take the bait, they are pulled to the surface where they are shot in the head, their bodies left to rot in the ocean. These kinds of efforts are not new. In New South Wales in 1937, shark nets were set up around beaches. After many sharks were caught by these nets, some took it as proof the nets were necessary. Today Pepin-Neff and Wynter found that out of 40 international beaches, 23% of the beaches allow killing sharks in order to prevent shark bites.
What causes people to be afraid
Pepin-Neff and Wynter suggest that we are most afraid of sharks when we believe that they mean to hurt us. In order to test this hypothesis, visitors to the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium were asked a number of questions before and after visiting the Shark Valley exhibit. Visitors were divided into three groups, but all participants were asked a series of base questions, including: (1) how they felt about sharks; (2) how afraid they were of sharks and shark bites; (3) who they blame for these bites; and (4) what role the government should play in preventing shark attacks. Visitors in the Control group were only asked these questions.
A second group, called the Intent group, were also asked to rate sharks’ eyesight, if the shark in the aquarium would be able to see them, and to agree or disagree with the statement, “Sharks see us and avoid us when we are in the water.” These questions were developed to make people think about if sharks intend to hurt humans or not.
A third group, called the Science group, were asked to tell how they felt about the statement, “Of the more than 400 species of sharks, only seven are known to bite humans.” This is the standard mantra of many aquariums. After walking through the exhibit, all groups were asked about shark behavior, fear of sharks, and policies preventing shark bites.
In the end, all groups reported feeling less afraid of sharks, confirming that the idea of sharks is scarier than the reality. The Intent group, however, showed the greatest decrease in their fear of sharks. When people are asked to think about shark intentionality, especially lack thereof, they are less likely to be afraid. Perhaps as a result, people in the Intent group showed the least support for policies that killed sharks.
In contrast, the Science group showed the smallest decrease in fear of sharks and was the most likely to support policies killing sharks, even compared to the Control group. People in this group were also more likely to report that sharks were watching them from the tanks, showing a sense of intentionality. While aquariums are desperately trying to mitigate fear of sharks, the messaging that they are using may actually be emphasizing what is scary about shark attacks instead of making people less afraid.
What can be done
Sharks mostly make the news when there is an attack, so it is easy to associate them only with violence. However, groups like OCEARCH are taking it upon themselves to fight this association in creative ways. The organization tags great white sharks to study their migration, but they also keep the public updated while they are tracking these sharks with twitter accounts like Hilton the Shark. These twitter feeds give updates on the shark’s travels through the ocean and increase awareness that sharks live large portions of their lives without interacting with humans. It is a great way to connect with the community, but when there is a shark attack, we must also emphasize how sharks, who prefer a fat seal, don’t intend to eat humans. While educators have been trained to report pithy statistics like, “You are more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a shark,” these kinds of statements do little to combat the root cause of our fear. By raising awareness for the lives of sharks outside of attacks and emphasizing that humans really aren’t on a shark’s menu, we can begin to chip away at the fear surrounding these animals and leave Jaws where it belongs, 50 years behind us.
I am a PhD student studying Biological Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. My interests are in food webs, ecology, and the interaction of humans and the ocean, whether that is in the form of fishing, pollution, climate change, or simply how we view the ocean. I am currently researching the decline of cancer crabs and lobsters in the Narragansett Bay.