Long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth between 66 million and 245 million years ago, sharks patrolled the ocean. For more than 400 million years, sharks have lived through multiple mass extinctions in habitats ranging from tropical coral reefs to the Arctic. But today, many species are suffering. One in three shark, ray and chimera species are threatened with extinction, according to a 2021 study.
The great white shark is one of the most iconic of these threatened species, and some researchers think Jaws played a role. After the book’s publication 50 years ago, and the movie adaptation that soon followed, some people fell in love with sharks, but many others saw them in their nightmares. In the decades that followed, humans killed hundreds of millions of sharks—through overfishing, by cutting off their fins and by hunting them for sport, which experts say was a practice motivated by the movie.
“Sharks have a bad name, they have terrible PR based on Jaws,” says Chris Pepin-Neff, a public policy expert at the University of Sydney in Australia who studies the politicization of shark bites.
In 1974, Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws was a phenomenon in the United States. By the end of the year, it had spent 42 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. By the following summer, more than 5.5 million copies of the book were in print.
But the Jaws movie might have been an even bigger hit. The 1975 blockbuster made $260 million during its original release, equivalent to almost $1.5 billion today and on par with how much last summer’s Barbie has made worldwide.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Jaws tells the story of a beach town whose summer tourist season is threatened by the presence of a great white shark in its waters. After the shark kills multiple people, the town’s police chief, a shark hunter and an oceanographer take to the seas to put a stop to the killing.
The onscreen shark terrorized audiences that summer—the movie is thought to have inspired a decline in beach attendance that year. Pepin-Neff says that the movie also contributed to a number of myths in the public consciousness about sharks, the biggest of which is the idea that sharks intentionally try to kill people.
But sharks are not out to get humans. Many encounters that result in shark bites of humans are thought to be the result of confusion. White sharks “are a very cautious and curious animal,” says Heather Bowlby, research lead of the Canadian Atlantic Shark Research Laboratory. Beyond having the same senses as humans, white sharks also have cells in their snout that can detect electrical pulses, as well as cells on their body for detecting pressure changes in the water.
“From my perspective, I think they tend to investigate things they don’t understand,” Bowlby says. “And because all of their senses are concentrated around their mouth, and they don’t have hands, I think they bite them.”
“I always say, ‘We’re in the way, not on the menu,’” Pepin-Neff says. “But people feel like they’re on the menu, and Jaws put them on the menu.”
The movie also perpetuates the idea, first proposed in the 1950s, of a “rogue shark”—a single shark hunting in a particular area—as Pepin-Neff writes in a 2014 article on “the Jaws effect.” But researchers don’t think rogue sharks exist.
Still, “people believe the ‘rogue shark’ theory,” Pepin-Neff says. “Jaws turned sharks from fish to movie monsters.”
From the sharks’ perspective, it might be humans who are the monsters. A 2013 study found that human activity, which includes trophy hunting and overfishing, killed around 100 million sharks per year in the early 2000s, great whites included. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, which tracks the extinction risk of biological species, has listed great white sharks as a “vulnerable” population, one step down from “endangered,” since 1996. A 2014 analysis in PLOS One of records of great white sharks in the northwest Atlantic found that their numbers declined significantly in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the wake of Jaws, shark trophy hunting increased. Sharks were killed for sport, not for food. In a scene forecasting what would follow up and down the East Coast, Quint, the movie’s shark hunter, has dozens of shark jaws hanging from the wall of his shack.
Shark fishing tournaments became popular in the United States and only recently have declined thanks in part to pressure from conservationists and increasing public awareness. The last New England shark killing tournaments ended a few years ago after the release of the documentary Fin, which tracked humans killing sharks. Tournaments also lost corporate sponsors because of advocacy work. In 2016, 72 shark fishing tournaments were registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries for pelagic sharks (sharks living in open waters) in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. In 2023, that number had dropped to 14.
While hunting white sharks specifically has been illegal in the U.S. for decades, Bowlby says that white sharks continue to be hurt by bycatch, when fishers accidentally catch fish they do not want or cannot keep. “Because white sharks are attracted to the same food sources as a lot of other large pelagic animals, they’re caught in the same fisheries,” she explains. When animals are caught on hooks or entangled in gear, they often are injured or die, according to NOAA.
Shark finning, which is when fishers catch a shark, cut off its fin and dump its body back in the ocean, is prevalent due in part to the popularity of shark fin soup in China. Without its fin, the shark dies either from suffocating or bleeding out. More than 80 countries exported roughly 23 million pounds of shark fin products to Hong Kong, the largest shark fin market, in 2011. Despite various protections around the globe for white sharks, they are still hunted for their fins.
Nets installed along beaches to reduce the risk of sharks biting swimmers entangle sharks and other animals, frequently killing them. Toxins and heavy metals from human pollution can also build up in white sharks’ bodies—a 2019 study found high levels of mercury and arsenic in white shark blood. As a result of these human activities, white shark numbers dropped. The 2014 PLOS One study found that during the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s, white shark abundance decreased by between 27 and 86 percent in the northwest Atlantic.
But white shark numbers seemed to stabilize in the 1990s and increase during the 2000s, which the study linked to countries beginning to implement measures to protect white sharks. South Africa was the first country to protect white sharks, in 1991. The predators have been protected in California waters since 1994, in U.S. Atlantic waters since 1997 and in Australia since 1999. The European Union also started requiring that sharks be brought to port with their fins naturally attached in 2013, though illegal shark finning continues around the world.
“There’s no expectation of more recent population decline,” Bowlby says. “People are still expecting that the population is growing.”
While Jaws may have contributed to the deaths of many sharks, it also inspired a generation of shark enthusiasts and scientists who wanted to learn more about the fish. In the North Atlantic, biologists survey and tag sharks to learn more about their growth, reproductive biology, distribution and migration.
Research has uncovered many unexpected facts about white sharks—a 2005 study found that a white shark swam more than 12,000 miles from South Africa to Australia and back over the course of nine months. Despite white sharks’ mythical reputations as monsters, a 2019 study found they fear killer whales and will abandon their hunting grounds for months when orcas swim by. Researchers aren’t quite sure how long white sharks live, but it may be as long as 70 years. And people frequently unknowingly swim and surf near white sharks in southern California but are rarely bitten.
While conservation efforts have helped scientists better understand white sharks, researchers still face unanswered questions. They’re even still trying to get a grasp on how many white sharks there are. “An estimate of total abundance [in the northwest Atlantic] would be very useful to help us understand the impact of threats to the population,” Bowlby writes via email.
Scientists also don’t know where white sharks mate or give birth, but in a study published in January, researchers say they may have recently spotted a newborn white shark in Southern California. The study authors write that the area might need stricter protections for white shark conservation.The researchers used a drone to spot the youngster. Over the past decade, the technology has helped scientists better understand how sharks hunt and scavenge around whales, interact with each other, and prey on seals, according to a 2021 study. Continuing research with the technology will only help scientists learn more about the creatures that were depicted so inaccurately in Jaws.