Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Spielberg says he “truly regrets” how the bloodthirsty portrayal of great white sharks in his 1975 film Jaws contributed to a sharp decline in the animals’ population.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on Sunday, Spielberg responded to a question asking how he would feel if he was on a desert island surrounded by shark-infested waters.
“That’s one of the things I still fear—not to get eaten by a shark, but that sharks are somehow mad at me for the feeding frenzy of crazy sport fishermen that happened after 1975,” Spielberg tells BBC Radio 4’s Lauren Laverne. “I truly, and to this day, regret the decimation of the shark population because of the book and the film.”
Jaws spearheaded a “collective testosterone rush” among fishers in the East Coast of the United States, leading thousands to hunt sharks for sport, as George Burgess, former director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, told the BBC in 2015. In the years following the film’s release, the number of large sharks in the waters east of North America declined by about 50 percent.
The Oscar-winning thriller film follows a police chief, a marine biologist and a ship captain as they hunt down a killer great white shark that attacks individuals at a fictional summer beach town in New York.
“In the public’s mind, the fear of sharks that Jaws initially inspired was soon replaced by fascination, which continues to this day,” wrote Nancy Knowlton and Wendy Benchley for Smithsonian magazine in 2014. “Sadly, that fascination has been joined with despair over the last several decades, as evidence has accumulated that shark populations are plummeting, driven by overfishing.”
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, more than one-third of all shark species and about 75 percent of oceanic shark species are faced with the threat of extinction, reports the Guardian’s Miranda Bryant.
Some experts, however, are more inclined to let Spielberg off the hook for sharks’ plight. Blaming the decline of sharks on Jaws is “giving the film far too much credit,” Paul Cox, chief executive of the Shark Trust, tells the Guardian. “The cases of shark population decline are very clearly fisheries overfishing.”
Still, the movie did prompt some fears of sharks. Much of the suspense in Jaws stems from the fact that viewers hardly ever actually see the great white shark in the film. It was an intentional choice done in part to build anticipation—but it was also the result of technical difficulties with the mechanical shark. “I had to be resourceful in figuring out how to create suspense and terror without seeing the shark itself,” Spielberg tells BBC Radio 4. “It was just good fortune that the shark kept breaking. It was my good luck, and I think it’s the audience’s good luck, too, because it’s a scarier movie without seeing so much of the shark.”
Phobia specialist Christopher Paul Jones tells the Guardian that much of the film’s power comes from the emotions it creates. Jones says individuals he has encountered with galeophobia, a fear of sharks, often cite films like Jaws as the basis of their fear, since most people have not seen a shark in the wild. “You can’t see below water, and the music creates a sense of fear,” Jones says. “Movies are very good at hitting every sense—visual, sound—and can be very impactful on how we feel.”
Jaws played a major role in solidifying Spielberg’s status as a household name, after he directed the cult classic at just 27 years old. Spielberg’s filmography also includes E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and, most recently, The Fabelmans (2022).
Peter Benchley, the late author of the 1974 book Jaws that inspired Spielberg’s film, also publicly apologized for the impact his book had on the shark population. Benchley went on to become a conservationist who championed the animals’ protection.
“Sharks don’t target human beings, and they certainly don’t hold grudges,” Benchley told the London Daily Express in 2006. “There’s no such thing as a rogue man-eater shark with a taste for human flesh. In fact, sharks rarely take more than one bite out of people, because we’re so lean and unappetizing to them.”