"Jaws" at 30: Film Stoked Fear, Study of Great White Sharks

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"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.

Kill Tournaments

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.

Biological Buck

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."

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