When Jaws came out in the summer of 1975, people were afraid to swim in the ocean.
Research shows Steven Spielberg’s iconic thriller also led to humans killing sharks more, and now the Oscar-winning director feels guilty for that. In an interview with BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, he said he apologized for inspiring the “frenzy of crazy sport fishermen” who sought to hunt sharks after his movie came out.
“To this day [I] regret the decimation of the shark population because of the book and the film. I really, truly regret that," Spielberg said. “That's one of the things I still fear."
In Jaws, Martin (Roy Scheider), Matt (Richard Dreyfuss), and Quint (Robert Shaw) form an unlikely team attempting to seek and hunt a dangerous shark that’s killed multiple civilians in a fictional New England coastal town. The film became an instant classic and won three Academy Awards, including one for its score, among the most famous in cinema history.
Peter Benchley, the original book’s author, also expressed his guilt. After he died in 2006, his obituary in the Los Angeles Times quoted his interview with the London Daily Express in which he reiterated that the film was entirely fictional and not representative of real-world danger.
"Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today," he said. "Sharks don't target human beings, and they certainly don't hold grudges.”
Brianna Le Busque and Carla Litchfield, researchers at the University of South Australia, analyzed the depiction of sharks in over a hundred films released between 1958 and 2019. In a report published in 2021, Busque found that Pixar’s Finding Dory (2016) was the only movie of the 109 studied that didn’t depict sharks as threats to humans.
"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 told Mongabay, a US-based science outlet.
The Florida Museum of Natural History’s database examined 137 reported interactions between sharks and humans that happened in 2021. It found that most attacks happened in a shark's natural habitat.
A 2013 Pew study estimated that about 100 million sharks were killed each year in commercial fisheries.
Jaws helped turn Spielberg into a filmmaking legend and set the stage for his later blockbusters, which included Jurassic Park and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. He’s got millions of fans across the globe. Understandably, none of those fans are sharks.