When Peter Benchley wrote "Jaws," when Steven Spielberg turned it into a film more than 34 years ago, and when those of us who acted in it helped create the first summer blockbuster, nobody imagined the unintended consequences that would follow. "Jaws" intensified the public's already existing fear of sharks, fueling misperceptions that have given cover to an industry which kills vast numbers of these magnificent creatures each year, thereby depleting a keystone predator that helps maintain the health of our oceans.
Although the movie held a kind of delightful terror for viewers, on average fewer than four annual fatal shark attacks have occurred worldwide since 2001, according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. Conversely, up to 73 million sharks are killed annually by people.
Most sharks are killed for their fins, which can command up to $300 per pound in China and other parts of Asia, where they are used in soup and nutritional supplements. The remainder of the shark is of far less commercial value. As a result, millions of sharks are simply tossed back into the ocean, either dead or dying after their fins are removed. Some years ago, for example, a single fishing boat was seized carrying 32 tons of fins taken from an estimated 30,000 sharks.
The massive killing of the world's sharks is a global tragedy that needs to be stopped before these animals slip into extinction. Sharks, like their counterpart predators on land - wolves, lions and tigers - play a key role in helping maintain the health of other animal populations. They prey on the weak and the sick, ensuring that other species do not grow to a size that upsets the delicate balance of nature.
For instance, when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone Park during the winters of 1995-97, nearly 70 years after being exterminated in the park and elsewhere in the continental United States, researchers found something unexpected. They discovered that wolves helped maintain the health of the park's aspen forests by keeping elk populations in check and allowing tender tree shoots to grow into mature trees instead of being eaten by overpopulated herds.
Sharks play a similar role in the marine environment, though it is far less appreciated and understood. Indeed, most people continue to view sharks simply as a threat. Because of this misguided perception, sharks throughout most of the world's oceans are not subject to any management whatsoever to ensure that their numbers remain healthy, and fishermen are free to kill as many as they wish.
The consequence of this ongoing slaughter has led to a free fall in the populations of many shark species, with some plunging over 90 percent in the past several decades alone.
In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to ban shark finning but loopholes in the law have undermined enforcement, allowing ships to transfer fins at sea to get around prohibitions in American waters. Now, however, a proposed new policy, the Shark Conservation Act of 2009 would, if enacted, close the transfer loophole and require that sharks be brought to port with their fins naturally attached.
Passage of this bill would help reduce the numbers of sharks being killed each year, but much more needs to be done. In the United States as well as other parts of the world, far greater effort must be made to assess the status of those shark populations about which little is known. We need science based restrictions on how many sharks can be caught each year, while curtailing the illegal killing of these important animals before they are eradicated from large areas of the global ocean.
The disappearance of sharks would not simply damage the world's marine environment, it would also have negative consequences for the billions of people who depend on healthy oceans worldwide.
We can write a new chapter in the relationship between people and sharks, one based on an accurate portrayal of these creatures and the vital role they play. When Peter Benchley fully realized the plight of sharks, he devoted much effort toward the end of his life in trying to alter their image in the public eye. Peter was right. Rather than fearing sharks, we should fear for them.