Did jaws kill most sharks
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Now this is a story
All about how
My life got Flipped-turned upside down
And I'd like to take a minute
Just sit right there
I'll tell you how I became prince of a town called Bel Air
"It perpetuated the myths about sharks as man-eaters and bloodthirsty killers " even though the odds of an individual entering the sea and being attacked by a shark are almost infinitesimal," said George Burgess, a shark biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Burgess says the movie initiated a precipitous decline in U.S. shark populations, as thousands of fishers set out to catch trophy sharks after seeing Jaws. Later, in the 1980s, commercial fisheries further decimated shark populations.
But the phenomenal popularity of the movie also helped the study of sharks, researchers say. Before Jaws, very little was known about the predators. After the film's release, interest in sharks skyrocketed, resulting in increased funding for shark research.
"On the one hand, the movie did damage to sharks, because people saw them as monsters," said Robert Hueter, who directs the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. "But for scientists, the whole Jaws thing started working in our favor, because of the overexaggerated public interest in these animals."
But there's another side to this story, one that I feel has not been given adequate consideration: in addition to its negative impacts on sharks, JAWS has also spawned some very positive effects. Of these, it seems to me that the two most important are, 1) the film ignited the imaginations and inspired the careers of a whole new generation of shark biologists, and 2) the sudden public interest in sharks caused a major resurgence in funding to support basic shark research.
I was nine when I first saw JAWS. At the time, I had been fascinated by sharks for several years and was perennially hungry to know more about them. Rather than being scared out of the water by JAWS, I wanted to grow up to be just like Matt Hooper. He was, after all, the only character who really understood why the shark was doing what it was doing and the only one who had any idea about how to deal with it. And Hooper was no mere amateur - he actually studied sharks for a living. I never imagined that such a job existed, let alone fancied that I could end up doing something like that. I decided then and there that, whatever it took, I was going to become a shark biologist, so I could spend the rest of my life learning everything I could about sharks.
I don't believe for a moment that I am alone in this chain of events. Indeed, I suspect that a very high percentage of the newly-minted shark scientists of today were originally 'turned onto' the idea of pursuing shark biology as a career by the movie JAWS.
Shark research is often an expensive pursuit and without funding it quickly runs aground. But the massive public interest in sharks - whether inspired by fear or fascination - revealed just how little was known about these animals scientifically and made it somewhat easier to secure funding from government and private sources to rectify that suddenly intolerable state of ignorance. In the wake of JAWS, a whole constellation of dedicated shark research programs were begun or renewed. This resulted in numerous scientific symposia to allow researchers to share their results and collaborate on more ambitious projects. To date, some 22 of these symposia (including two dedicated to the biology of White Sharks) have been published in English, making a wealth of new data and ideas available to present and future shark researchers. Rather than focusing on the subject of shark attacks, these symposia concentrated on shark systematics, physiology, life history, ecology, fisheries management and conservation. Indeed, it is probably safe to say that we have learned more about sharks since JAWS than we have in all previous recorded history. And it is doubtful that as much public interest and funding would have been available to support modern shark research had it not been for JAWS.
It seems likely that the more enlightened, more tolerant view of sharks many of us hold today ultimately owes much to JAWS. While the unfortunate, knee-jerk reaction to the film was a regrettable increase in the mass slaughter of sharks, eventually our unwarranted shark paranoias were replaced with new knowledge and a greatly increased appreciation of sharks as wildlife. Therefore, on the balance of things, I believe JAWS was a positive thing for sharks because, as a direct and indirect consequence of that film, the odds favoring future survival of these animals is very much improved.
As far as Peter Benchley's conscience is concerned, I am reminded of a favorite quote attributed to the late, great pioneer science fiction editor John Campbell: "You can't ever do only one thing." Every action has multiple effects - some good, some not-so-good. The novel JAWS that started it all may have had some initial not-so-good consequences for sharks, but it seems to me that the overall effect has been positive. Relax, Mr. Benchley: thanks to the current generation of shark scientists and the mass of new research inspired as a result of JAWS, sharks in general and White Sharks in particular are, on the main, probably far better off than they might have been.
Issues in Conservation
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The Mysterious, Endangered River Sharks (Glyphis spp.)
Collapse of Shark Populations in the Western North Atlantic
Slaughter In Paradise
ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
The Prehistoric Buzz Shark Has a Modern-Day Hero in Artist Ray Troll
In the public"s mind, the fear of sharks that Jaws initially inspired was soon replaced by fascination, which continues to this day. Sadly, that fascination has been joined with despair over the last several decades, as evidence has accumulated that shark populations are plummeting, driven by overfishing. Peter Benchley often stated in later years that he could never again write a book like Jaws, and he devoted much of his post-Jaws career to ocean conservation.
How did sharks get into such trouble in the first place? Sharks and their relatives have been around for more than 400 million years and survived four mass extinctions. Yet they are surprisingly vulnerable to human fishing because, like many long-lived organisms, they reproduce slowly. Great white sharks, for example, may live to be 70 years old or more. Spotty data suggest that females produce on average five baby great whites at a time but give birth perhaps only every other year, starting at about 15 years of age.
So it is no surprise that shark populations have not been able to keep up with losses caused by a worldwide hunting frenzy. Demand for shark fins, often served in Asia as shark fin soup for wedding banquets, New Year"s festivities and government functions, skyrocketed for decades, leading to estimates of 100 million sharks being killed every year. This translated to a loss of about 6 to 8 percent of all sharks annually, a rate that cannot be sustained by populations that typically only increase by about 5 percent a year.
Yet lately, after years of shark doom and gloom, some good news has started to appear. How did the situation start to turn around? You can chalk it up to better fishery management, falling demand for shark fins and rising appreciation for live sharks.
Rules and policies designed to protect sharks include shark sanctuaries, banning of shark finning (the taking of just the valuable fins and discarding the often still-living shark), prohibitions on selling and shipping of shark products and changes in fishing gear that reduce the likelihood of sharks being caught by mistake. Thanks to growing public disgust with the practice of finning and awareness of catastrophic drops in shark numbers, demand for shark fin soup is declining in Asia (as are shark fin prices). The Chinese government recently banned the serving of shark fin soup at official functions, a number of large hotels have taken shark fin soup off the menu and a growing list of airlines are refusing to transport shark fins.
In places where tourism is critical to the local economy, the realization that sharks are much more valuable alive than dead has also prompted legal protection. More than 30 percent of the Maldives" economy is based on shark eco-tourism, and in Palau it was estimated that a shark that brings in $108 dead is worth $1.9 million alive over its lifetime. As a recent headline in the New York Times noted in a story about shark tourism on Cape Cod (not far from where most of Jaws was filmed): "They"re Going to Need a Bigger Gift Shop."
Most importantly, bit-by-bit, scientists have been finding evidence that shark numbers in some areas are slowly rebounding. A report this year suggested that numbers of great white sharks seem to be increasing along the east coast of the United States, and similar trends have been reported from California, South Africa and Australia. Notably, these are all places where harvest of these sharks has been prohibited since the 1990s. Such developments inspire cautious optimism: we could be at a shark conservation tipping point.
Of course, there is still plenty of cause for concern and much work to be done. Some scientists dispute the more optimistic numbers, not all laws are well enforced and no one is arguing for a relaxation of global efforts to conserve sharks. Of the 476 species of sharks analyzed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature for extinction risk, good data are only available for 276, and of these 123 are considered at risk for extinction.
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