Most Films Portray Sharks as Threatening, Which Can Hurt Conservation Efforts

If we were young enough when we first saw the movie Jaws, we probably found ourselves a little afraid of the ocean, maybe even lakes and bathtubs. Many shark films have terrifying plots similar to Jaws. A new study out of Australia says there are very few shark movies that don’t take that approach, and it plays a role in how people view the animals in real life.

Researchers from the University of South Australia looked at more than 100 films with human-shark interactions and found the vast majority of those interactions posed danger to humans. The findings were recently published in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife.

PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK/MICHAEL BOGNER

This overwhelmingly negative portrayal can give people many misconceptions about sharks.

Conservation psychology researcher Dr. Brianna Le Busque, who co-wrote the study, says, “Most of what people know about sharks is obtained through movies, or the news, where sharks are typically presented as something to be deeply feared.”

Dr. Le Busque and University of South Australia associate professor Carla Litchfield conducted their research by examining the storylines and posters of 109 shark films on online database IMDb. They say that 96% of the movies overtly portrayed human-shark interactions as possibly threatening to humans, while 3% covertly portrayed the interactions as potentially threatening. There was just one film that did not depict any dangerous interactions.

PHOTO: PIXABAY/BAECHI

Dr. Le Busque says, “Since Jaws, we’ve seen a proliferation of monster shark movies – Open Water, The Meg, 47 Metres Down, Sharknado – all of which overtly present sharks as terrifying creatures with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. This is just not true.

“Sharks are at much greater risk of harm from humans, than humans from sharks, with global shark populations in rapid decline, and many species at risk of extinction.”

She went on to say that it’s important for filmmakers to be mindful about how they present sharks to the public. If they aren’t, continuing these types of portrayals could get in the way of conservation and proper species management.

Dr. Le Busque explains, “Exacerbating a fear of sharks that’s disproportionate to their actual threat, damages conservation efforts, often influencing people to support potentially harmful mitigation strategies.”

PHOTO: PIXABAY/ALONDAV

Harmful treatment of sharks did erupt soon after the release of Jaws.

George Burgess, retired director of the Florida Program for Shark Research in Gainesville, says the population of large sharks shrunk by about 50% on the eastern seaboard in the years after the film came out. Thousands of people hit the water, trophy hunting for sharks, which they saw as ruthless.

Burgess says, “It was good blue collar fishing. You didn’t have to have a fancy boat or gear – an average Joe could catch big fish, and there was no remorse, since there was this mindset that they were man-killers.”

Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based, later regretted the impact his story had on people’s perception of sharks. Years on, he said he may not have written it if he’d known what he’d learned later. He spent much of the rest of his life campaigning for shark conservation.

PHOTO: NOAA

Benchley’s wife Wendy said he wrote about what he knew at the time, and it would have been different if he’d been armed with the knowledge he gained in the years following its release.

The white shark’s portrayal in the film was inaccurate in many ways. Greg Skomal, a fisheries biologist and shark expert with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, says at the time, no one knew that much about the species. With continued understanding, we now know a lot more. There are many differences between the film shark and the real-life version.

Skomal explains, “The book and film exaggerated the white shark’s behavior. The white shark in the film was far larger than normal—about 25 feet—while the largest animals in the wild are typically 15 to 18 feet. They had it satisfying hunger by consuming humans. They don’t do that. White sharks did not evolve with humans as prey or food.”

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Another inaccuracy was that the shark even seemed vindictive, which isn’t a characteristic of the white shark.

Unfortunately, it’s not just fiction films that harm public perception. It can also be impacted by documentaries, which often choose scary music to accompany footage of sharks. A 2016 study found that people who watched documentaries with these types of soundtracks were more apt to see the animals in a negative light than those who saw footage with happy music or no music at all. This was true even if the sharks weren’t doing anything particularly scary.

The World Wildlife Fund says the idea that sharks are man-eaters is an unfortunate and continuing misconception.

They explain, “The sharks involved in incidents with humans are often hunting for similar-sized prey to humans, such as seals or dolphins. The majority of shark species actually eat fish or invertebrates, such as squid or clams.”

PHOTO: PIXABAY/ROBERT DOUGHTY

In fact, rather than being scary and harmful, they’re quite beneficial. Sharks help improve ecosystems, but they’re also important for many livelihoods and tourism-reliant communities.

Unfortunately, shark populations face threats across the globe. For white sharks, those include fisheries mortality, loss of prey due to overharvesting, human-caused wildlife disturbances, habitat degradation due to contaminants, and global climate change. For different species that are at risk of extinction, bycatch, overfishing, and shark finning are big issues.

If you’d like to do something to help these important animals, sign our petition to put an end to shark finning.

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