- A study analyzing 109 shark-related films from 1958 to 2019 has found that 96% of them overtly portrayed sharks as potentially threatening to humans.
- “Finding Dory” was the only film in that list not to portray sharks in a negative light.
- The study’s co-author says this sustained negative portrayal by the media and Hollywood “makes people more likely to want potentially lethal mitigation techniques” against sharks.
- Humans slaughter more than 100 million sharks each year, and more than 30% of all shark and ray species are considered threatened.
David McGuire lived through the summer of Jaws in 1975 and saw the impact. As a surfer in Southern California, the upside was fewer people in the water. But McGuire, the director and founder of the conservation organization Shark Stewards, also remembers surfers fleeing the ocean at the sign of a leopard shark (Triakis semifasciata), a harmless species with no history of dangerous encounters with humans; and even people too terrified to swim in pools.
The lasting effect of Jaws is well known. In 2015, Christopher Neff from the University of Sydney, Australia, proposed the term the “Jaws effect,” positing that the film’s storyline has had a massive influence on people’s framing of shark encounters. The three basic tenets of the “Jaws effect” are the belief that sharks intentionally bite humans, that human-shark encounters are always fatal, and that sharks should be killed to prevent future attacks.
Since the release of Jaws in 1975, shark populations have only fallen catastrophically. Over the last half-decade, populations of sharks and rays (a close evolutionary relative) have decreased by 71%. More than 100 million sharks are killed each year, and over 30% of all shark and ray species are considered threatened.
Brianna Le Busque, a researcher and professor at the University of South Australia, knew the role Jaws had on the public perception of sharks. So after previously studying the news media’s reporting on shark encounters, Le Busque set out to study how fictional films as a whole — not just Jaws — have represented sharks.
“Doing that research [on the news media], I came to realize the media has a really big impact when it comes to how people view sharks,” Le Busque said. “There are a few studies that have looked at Jaws specifically … but there was no research looking at shark films more generally … I wanted to see if it was similar to Jaws or not.”
Le Busque’s results, published in Human Dimensions of Wildlife earlier this year, were, as McGuire said, “Not surprising at all.”
After analyzing 109 shark films released between 1958 and 2019, Le Busque found 96% (105) of the films overtly portrayed sharks as potentially threatening to humans. Of the remaining four films, three covertly portrayed the potential threat of sharks to humans. And only one film, Finding Dory, did not present sharks as threatening to humans.
Le Busque notes that although Finding Dory did not portray sharks in this light, the shark portrayed in the film is a whale shark, which are famously not dangerous to humans. Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are filter feeders, thriving off plankton mostly and occasionally small fish. There is not a single recorded incident of a whale shark attacking a human.
Examining shark film posters, Le Busque found that more than half featured white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias). Bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) were the second most frequently featured shark, closely followed by species that don’t exist. Nearly 75% of the posters showed the shark’s teeth.
“What we found is that it was really consistent to how the news media portrays sharks. All of the films, apart from one, had sharks that were scary, that were biting people, or people fearing sharks. That was the really prominent thing: that sharks were scary,” Le Busque said. “I wasn’t surprised by that, but I was surprised by how many shark films there were, over 100. And the fact that consistently sharks were portrayed in a scary way.”
To analyze the films, Le Busque and fellow researcher Carla Litchfield, also from the University of South Australia, read in-depth plot summaries from IMDB and looked for signs of sharks being overtly or covertly displayed as a threat to humans. Some of these traits were sharks biting humans, attempting to bite humans, or human characters discussing their fear of sharks.
“Because sharks are in the media so often … it really seems to make people think that the [chances of encountering] a shark is higher than it is,” Le Busque said.
This, she added, can impact how people view shark conservation.
“Some people just think, ‘Why bother conserving sharks if they can harm us,’” she said. “But what it also does is it makes people more likely to want potentially lethal mitigation techniques.”
McGuire agreed that the media, and Hollywood specifically, plays a large role in shaping the public perception of human-shark encounters.
‘More likely to be bitten by a New Yorker’
But not everyone agrees. Cheryl McCarron, the education and outreach director for conservation organization Shark Angels, said the portrayal of sharks in films is too abstract to have real consequences.
“As far as the movie industry, most of that stuff is too ludicrous to be believable by most people,” said McCarron, who, in addition to working in shark conservation, works in costume art for theater, television and film. “With the premise of Sharknado, no one’s ever going to start believing that sharks are gonna start swirling around land in a giant cloud. For a lot of that, no I don’t think it poses any challenge for us in conservation because the premise is too ridiculous.”
McCarron said the earlier and superficially more realistic shark films (when compared to Sharknado) may have had some cultural impact on the perception of sharks. But she said the purpose of Hollywood is to entertain, not to promote conservation.
McCarron said the onus of public perception should be placed on the news media, a topic Le Busque has also written several papers on. McCarron said news media coverage of a shark encounter should include the proper context, including the true rarity of shark attacks: that in 2020 there were only 13 shark-related fatalities worldwide, 10 of which were unprovoked. The likelihood of encountering a shark is lower than being struck by lightning.
“You’re more likely to be bitten by a New Yorker than to be bitten by a shark,” McCarron said.
McGuire noted that, at least in the Bay Area of California, media coverage of shark encounters has been improving. One of the biggest changes is in the language. Specifically, reporters are using the term “shark encounter” instead of “shark attack.”
“[The news media] will preface their questions with, ‘OK, we realize the sharks are in the ocean. It’s their house and they’re just doing what sharks do,’” McGuire said.
While Le Busque’s research does not draw a direct line from the fictional portrayal of sharks in films to shark conservation, sharks currently face a massive conservation problem. For many species, it verges on existential.
In addition to shark populations worldwide dropping by more than two-thirds, oceanic whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus) and mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus) are facing serious population drops in much of their range.
“It’s a crisis. And it’s not just a crisis because sharks are cool, or important, or sharks thrill us. It’s because of these effects that happen if you remove an apex predator from an ecosystem,” McGuire said.
The shark effect
When humans remove sharks from a coral reef ecosystem, the shark’s prey is allowed to run wild. This leads to booming populations of the shark’s prey and the overconsumption of their prey. In regard to a coral reef, when sharks are removed in some cases, their big-fish prey boom, while the small plant-eating fish that typically consume the coral algae die off. With the overgrowth of coral algae comes coral disease and coral death.
“Because of the demand for [shark] fins and increasingly for food, because there are less tuna and certainly less swordfish, we are seeing a new market for shark meat,” McGuire said.
Help may be coming in the U.S. McGuire said he’s hopeful that the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (S. 1106) will pass in Congress. The Senate passed the bill in June as part of a larger legislative package (S. 1260). This bill would make it illegal to possess, buy, sell, or transport shark fins or any product containing shark fins, with the exception of certain dogfish fins.
McCarron said one of the best opportunities to push shark conservation forward is the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week, a block of shark-centric television programming. While Shark Week has never been centered around conservation, it draws a massive audience each year (35 million viewers in 2018).
“It would be great if [Shark Week] could throw in a conservation program in there once in a while to talk about the issues that are facing sharks and why so many of them are being killed and what we could do about it,” McCarron said.
At a personal level, volunteering or donating money is always an option, but McCarron also pointed to advocacy through one’s spending. She noted that all fishing, even sustainable fishing, has bycatch, and often this bycatch includes sharks. Pet food, fertilizer, cosmetics and health food supplements often include shark products.
“People need to understand that even though they think ‘Oh, I don’t eat shark fin soup,’ some of their consumer choices also have an impact,” she said.
“Everyone becoming vegan would be a solution … but we all can’t become vegan,” McGuire said. “It’s impossible, and many people just won’t. The simple solution to saving the ocean is — it’s not a simple solution.”
Le Busque, B., & Litchfield, C. (2021). Sharks on film: An analysis of how shark-human interactions are portrayed in films. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 1-7. doi:10.1080/10871209.2021.1951399
Neff, C. (2015). The Jaws effect: How movie narratives are used to influence policy responses to shark bites in Western Australia. Australian Journal of Political Science, 50(1), 114-127. doi:10.1080/10361146.2014.989385