The ‘Jaws’ effect: Movies are hindering efforts to save endangered shark species

ADELAIDE, Australia — Few movies have made as big a cultural impact as the 1975 classic “Jaws.” It’s hard not to spend a day at the beach without the film coming to mind, and over four decades after its initial release it still shapes the way people think about sharks. While there’s no denying that sharks are quite intimidating, and dangerous, a new study is proclaiming that scary shark movies are seriously impeding conservation efforts that ensure this often-endangered animal doesn’t become extinct.

For the first time ever, researchers from the University of South Australia have evaluated the portrayal of sharks in movies. Since the release of “Jaws,” over 100 additional shark-centric movies have made their way to theaters. Unsurprisingly, the analysis finds 96 percent of these shark movies depict the fish as big threats to humans.

While all of that is certainly understandable from an entertainment perspective, study authors say the overarching message that “sharks are bad” is making it that much harder to mount conservation efforts which aim to protect endangered shark species.

“Most of what people know about sharks is obtained through movies, or the news, where sharks are typically presented as something to be deeply feared,” says study co-author Dr. Briana Le Busque, a conservation psychology researcher, in a university release. “Since Jaws, we’ve seen a proliferation of monster shark movies – Open Water, The Meg, 47 Metres Down, Sharknado – all of which overtly present sharks as terrifying creatures with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. This is just not true.”

Are humans the real terror in the water?

Ironically, researchers say that sharks actually have far more reason to fear humans than the other way around. In recent years, global shark populations have rapidly declined and many species now face extinction. Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t generally know about this ongoing problem. Researchers say many people still associate sharks with panicked beach-goers or blood in the water more than a genus in jeopardy. This leads to many people supporting potentially harmful mitigation strategies which take aim at curbing shark populations.

“There’s no doubt that the legacy of Jaws persists, but we must be mindful of how films portray sharks to capture movie-goers. This is an important step to debunk shark myths and build shark conservation,” Dr. Le Busque concludes.

The study is published in Human Dimensions of Wildlife.