UF Researcher: ‘Jaws’ Unduly Scared Public With Shark Stereotypes

Published: June 8th, 2005

Category: Arts, Environment, Florida, Research, Sciences

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The slogan “Don’t go in the water” from the movie “Jaws” should apply not to humans but rather to sharks that have been decimated since the thriller came out 30 years ago this month, says a University of Florida researcher.

The movie’s inaccurate portrayal of a great white shark as a vengeful predator bent on massacring swimmers and boaters ironically helped set into motion the determined slaughter of sharks themselves, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, which is housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus.

“Back in 1975 when the movie came out, many of us who studied sharks sort of gasped at some of the inaccuracies and pooh-poohed it,” he said. “But as the years have gone by, my perception has softened, partly out of a realization that it was a victim of its time.”

After “Jaws,” dozens of shark fishing tournaments began popping up along the East Coast, part of a growing shark-hunting trend that dramatically reduced nearly all shark species over the next three decades, Burgess said. Not only was catching sharks cheaper than reeling in billfish or tuna, but in 1975, recreational fishing was still largely a male phenomenon, and the prospect of conquering the giant marine animal excited numerous fishermen, he said.

“Shark fishing became a popular blue-collar recreational fishing activity for testosterone-bolstered males who wanted to have their pictures taken with their feet on the heads of ‘maneaters’ and to have jaws on their mantles,” he said. “’Jaws’ greatly pushed the recreational fishing sector into a mindset of fishing for sharks. The later-developing commercial shark fishery further impacted the sharks.”

In the waters off the U.S. eastern seaboard, many species of sharks have dropped by 50 percent and some have fallen by as much as 90 percent, he said.

But as shark populations began to decline precipitously, scientists became aware of the need to learn more about sharks. That resulted in increased funding for shark research over the past 15 years and improved understanding of shark biology, he said.

“Jaws” was based loosely on a deadly rampage by a rogue white shark on swimmers along the New Jersey shoreline and in a nearby creek during the summer of 1916, Burgess said.

One of the movie’s most blatant errors was attributing one attack to a shark of the genus Squalus, which in reality is a spiny dogfish shark with tiny teeth that grows no bigger than 3 feet long and almost never attacks a human, Burgess said.

“We have one attack in the International Shark Attack File where somebody was washing his hands over the side of a boat and a shark came up and probably thought it was a piece of filet going overboard and nipped a guy’s finger,” he said. “This is the generic equivalent of your pussycat being accused of consuming a human being after nipping a finger.”

Burgess said when he played this “Jaws” segment to a group of shark scientists in Pennsylvania several years ago during a presentation on how sharks are portrayed in the media, “everyone got a big kick out of it and it brought the house down.”

Another humorous episode in the movie involved the marine biologist played by Richard Dreyfuss single-handedly performing an autopsy on one of the shark victims, Burgess said. “It’s very interesting that a marine biologist would be doing an autopsy at all,” he said. “As a guy who studies shark attacks, I’m frequently involved in autopsies, but I don’t perform any. I only consult with the medical professionals.”

But the movie’s major mistake is to portray sharks as vengeful creatures that can remember a particular human being and go after it, he said.

Although “Jaws” deserves accolades as an exciting piece of cinema, Burgess said, most of the sequels lack the original movie’s artistic content while still reinforcing unflattering stereotypes about sharks. In one recent televised movie, a monstrous school of sharks attacked spring breakers off a mountainous beach that was supposed to be Florida, he said.

While some of the educational programming, such as National Geographic and the BBC, represent sharks realistically, “in the end, it still seems that certain producers and certain channels feel obliged to pull out the scare card when it comes to sharks,” he said.

Humans have always held sharks in special awe, as they have lions, tigers, elephants and other ferocious animals, Burgess said. “The difference is that a high-powered rifle in the hand of a human being equalizes all land critters, even charging elephants, while humans are no match for sharks in the sea,” he said. “The irony is if humans sit in a boat and put a hook in the water, sharks, which as efficient predators are quick to grab the bait, are highly vulnerable.”


Cathy Keen, ckeen@ufl.edu, (352) 392-0186
George Burgess, gburgess@flmnh.ufl.edu, (352) 392-2360

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