How "Jaws" ruined everything for great white sharks

How politicians in Australia are using the Spielberg classic to turn tragic accidents into political crusades

Published December 26, 2014 12:00PM (EST)

If there's one thing we've learned from the "Interview" fiasco, it's this: Beware the power of movies.

And it's not just stoner flicks about power-crazed dictators we need to watch out for. Christopher Neff, a lecturer in public policy at the University of Sydney, has been documenting the impacts of a more insidiously influential film: "Jaws," the 1975 classic that taught the world to fear the boat-stalking, man-eating "rogue shark." Because, convincing as those '70s-era special effects are, Neff argues that we've had a tough time distinguishing the fictional movie beast from the real thing. In truth, he says, no great white shark has ever acted like the one that terrorizes Amity Island.

The myth of the rogue shark, as he explained in a 2012 TED Talk, is just that -- a myth.

The science hasn't been enough to convince everyone, however. And even more troubling is the phenomenon Neff documents in a new paper, published in the Australian Journal of Political Science: The anti-science myths propagated by "Jaws" are driving real government policies in Western Australia -- policies that permit the killing of sharks for no justifiable reason, and that do nothing to promote beach safety, either. He calls it "the Jaws Effect," and it's a chilling case study in the ways that politically motivated crusades can spin out of control.

Neff spoke with Salon about what happens when politicians stop listening to science and start listening to "Jaws." Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So I was hoping you could first just describe to me Australia's Imminent Threat policy. How exactly does that work?

This is a policy designed by the Western Australia state government, and what it means is that within three nautical miles of the shore, any shark that's swimming near a populated residential beach can be caught and killed. Now, they say it's if the shark is deemed to pose an imminent threat, but the definition of "imminent threat" is that it just needs to be a shark that they want to kill. So, for instance, even if everyone is out of the water and on the beach, the shark can still be deemed an imminent threat because that shark may return and kill someone later.

They started with a catch-and-kill policy in 2000, which was just generally out there in the case of somebody who was bitten by a shark -- only then you would go out and catch and kill the shark. The difference in the Imminent Threat policy is it says we're going to be preemptive. We're preemptively going out and killing white sharks in particular who swim near beaches because we believe that if we don't, they'll return and kill someone.

Is there any precedent, either in research or just anecdotally, to suggest that sharks will do that -- that they'll keep returning to shore and pose a continual threat?

There are only two sources that anyone can point to. The first is "Jaws," and the second is what "Jaws" was inspired by, this 1958 book called "Shark Attack" by Victor Coppleson, who was a Sydney doctor who worked with the Surf Life Saving Association and who made himself into an expert on shark bites after WWI. He came back to Sydney at the end of the war in 1922 and came up with the rogue shark theory, which said a shark that bites is more likely to bite again -- they get a taste for human flesh. 

That was something that was happening all over the world at the same time; there were all these British explorers who went out to India and said oh, Bengal tigers go rogue, and elephants go rogue, and the idea is that it was a very odd period of time, between 1900 and 1925, when you had not just colonization, but white people going to live in India and finding all these "rogue" beasts. And that was something that drifted over into Australia, and really got consolodated in the 1930s and '40s, and then the book comes out in the '50s.

So there's that one thing from someone who's not a marine biologist, not a shark scientist -- just a random book that's out there. And "Jaws." And "Jaws" says, in the script, "this is a rogue shark."

Are politicians explicitly saying, "we need this policy because look what happened in 'Jaws'"? Or what are they citing as their justification for acting this way?

Well, there are two different things. The first is that "Jaws" is a political device that's used. Politicians know that there are these familiar stories out there, and "Jaws" is the most familiar story when it comes to shark bites. So they're tapping into a familiar story in order to blame individual sharks, which makes an ungovernable accident now a governable event -- "it's a rogue shark that we have to respond to" -- and it gives them the impetus they need to target, blame and execute a policy against a shark.

The second is that they're affirmatively saying -- and I document this in the article -- that they believe there is one shark that has been tormenting the beach for several years, in numerous cases. That there was a terrible shark in Western Australia in 2000, where this gentleman Ken Crew was bitten and died very close to shore. It was very traumatic; it happened right in front of everybody in town. Then the shark circled the area -- they put a helicopter patrol over the shark and broadcast it across the state, so everyone in town sees the blood trail from the poor dead guy to the shark. They try to kill the shark, they don't have authorization to do so, they run to the minister's office, the minister's in a do-not-disturb meeting with the premier of the state -- the governor -- Richard Court. Three hours later, he comes out of the meeting and says "go kill the shark," and they go on a week-long killing hunt. They never find the shark, but the politicians are traumatized by this, because not killing the shark is seen as a political liability. It doesn't help that that beach, Cottesloe Beach, is the beach where the current premier lives: that's his constituency, his local district.

So then in 2003, there's a kayaker at Cottesloe Beach that's harassed by a shark, essentially -- he swims by and doesn't do anything, no one's hurt -- and Colin Barnett, the opposition leader, says, "This is the same shark. Three years ago, it bit Ken Crew, now it's come back. We need to put in a policy to preemptively kill this shark."

Then what happens is in 2011, there are three fatalities in three months. Kyle Burden is a bodyboarder, he's 21 years old. And after he dies, everyone says, oh, maybe we should kill the shark. His mom comes in and says, no, don't kill the shark, Kyle loved the ocean, and everything calms down. Secondly, this gentleman Bryn Martin disappears off Cottesloe Beach. His son goes to Cottesloe, says don't kill the shark, my father wouldn't have wanted it, everybody calm down. Then a few weeks later, George Wainwright, an American from Texas, is spearfishing -- and if you want to see a shark, go spearfishing -- off Rottnest Island. It's a terrible incident: the anchor gets stuck on the bottom, his boat is trying to pull away and can't, so he dives back into the water and that's when the white shark strikes. It was just a terrible incident, and within two hours of that, the government goes, "That's it, we're done, Imminent Threat Policy, kill the shark!" They go over to Rottnest Island, drop baited hook lines in the water -- they're baited with tuna, I believe -- however, the scientists quickly point out that they're now drawing more great white sharks into the area, closer to the residential beaches. So they quickly take up the hooks.

There's also the fact that the family couldn't be contacted immediately, because they were in a very different time zone. When they're finally contacted, they're on the "Today Show," and Matt Lauer or somebody tells them, you know, they're hunting the shark, what are your feelings about that? And they say, you know, we don't think George would have wanted that. But it doesn't matter. It's three shark bites in a short period of time, Norman Moore, the fisheries manager, goes on national radio in Australia and says it's the same shark, I'm issuing a shoot-to-kill order. And so you've got the premier of the state who's from this one beach that he believes is being tormented by this one shark, and you've got the fish minister believing that the same white shark has been involved in multiple incidents, and then that is all followed by the Imminent Threat policy, which leads up to preemptively killing rogue sharks that they believe are haunting the beaches.

So that's kind of how it comes about, which is the "Jaws" story. In the middle of all of this, the government flies me over there, and asks me to talk about what's happening. It was just before the George Wainwright incident, and I said, look, what's going to happen is that this is about to go off. Your third is your trigger point, that's where politicians feel that this is about political survival, not beach survival, and so we've got to figure out what we're doing here to protect ourselves. And this is why the Jaws Effect is so powerful, because it serves as a political advice to cue the public: you take a tragic situation and you make it worse by saying this wasn't an act of nature, this wasn't an accident, this was a rogue serial-killing shark that has come to our beaches, and if we don't kill it, it's going to continue to kill other bathers. And so we need to preemptively kill any shark that swims by the beach, because that one might be rogue.

And just to be clear, it wasn't the same shark all these times?

It was not the same shark.

Do we know that definitively?

No, but for instance, sharks travel about 50 to 70 kilometers a day. And they typically don't swim in circles -- they go up or down a coastline. The fact is also that humans are a biological failure for sharks: what they get out of biting us is too low to make up for the energy it takes to do it, so there's no reason for them to do it. Most shark bites are defensive.

And so there's no evidence of any great white shark ever biting any one person more than once. There's one case of a shark in Egypt that was responsible for more than one bite, but that wasn't because it had a taste for human flesh, it was because the snorkelers were going out and feeding the shark fish from bags hidden behind their backs. They kept essentially training the shark, and so it got a taste for fish -- not a taste for humans -- and then a group of snorkelers went to the area without any fish, and several of them got bitten in the back, because it was looking for the fish. So that's the closest that we've come to it. But it's a total hokum movie myth.

You take issue with a lot of the misconceptions about sharks that came out of "Jaws," and this idea that they're vicious attackers. Could you tell me a bit about your effort to get the press to stop calling shark attacks "shark attacks."

One of the things that makes the Jaws Effect so effective is just saying the phrase "shark attack." The issue is that, first, a government only has to say there have been so many shark attacks in order to trigger a policy window, right? "There have been six shark attacks, something has to be done." I did this paper with Bob Hueter of the Marine Lab in Sarasota that found that 38 percent of reported shark attacks in Sydney in the last 30 years had no injury whatsoever. There have been five of them in the last two years in the United States, where kayakers were bumped by sharks and it was reported as an attack -- it just happened off the coast of California a month ago. These events are called "perceptually contemporaneous": it's like if I said to you, your cousin was the victim of a home invasion. You've got a picture in your head of them being tied to a chair in the basement of the house -- there's a real picture of what a home invasion looks like; they didn't just come to steal your DVD player. And "shark attack" is the same kind of phrase, where it's vivid and it gives a certain kind of image. But 87 percent of shark bites are non-fatal, 40 percent of reported shark attacks have no injury whatsoever. Not all shark attacks are created equal.

In my research, I was seeing the way politicians, specifically, use this, like with the kayaker at Cottesloe Beach. So I went to a group of scientists, the largest group of shark scientists in the world, and I said, "Am I crazy?" Because in Australia, for the first 30 years they were called "shark accidents." The whole thing was invented, and then it's used by politicians even when there's no injury at all. I'm not saying that sharks don't attack. I'm saying the rate at which that ends up happening is so small, we're blowing it way out of proportion and it has political implications -- especially when you have a movie like "Jaws" that give you a certain picture of a certain kind of event.

Is there a need for shark policy at all? 

My position is that there's no government decision that's going to stop a shark bite. I always say, it's the decisions you make, not the decisions governments make, that's going to determine your level of risk. Secondly, any policy needs to be predicated on the assumption that you share the ocean with sharks. In the U.S., we have "swim at your own risk." The ocean is the wild; it's not a pool. 

There are some examples of policies where, if you take all of that into account, there are things you can do to really reduce risk. This is the one thing: the Imminent Threat policy doesn't reduce risk. Culling sharks doesn't reduce your risk of a shark bite. But in Cape Town, South Africa, they set up a shark spotter program, where they put people on the cliffs with binoculars, and they look down and if they see a shark they signal an alarm and pull people in. That does reduce risk. And at some beaches, where you don't get big waves, you can set up small, temporary enclosures. There are some things like that that you can do, but you're really limited, because the ocean is the wild.

This is a tricky one, because scientists say, "Look, it's an act of nature, you know you can't prove it wasn't the same shark without catching it and killing it, but I can tell you that it's not the same shark, this isn't the way shark behavior works." But you can use the "Jaws" theme to overwhelm science.

By Lindsay Abrams

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