Steven Spielberg says he regrets impact “Jaws” had on shark populations



Months after “Jaws” debuted in June 1975, the thriller became the highest-grossing film ever. Critics still classify director Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster as one of the most influential pictures in movie history.

Spielberg, however, says he still worries about another legacy of “Jaws.” In an interview with BBC Radio released Sunday, Spielberg said he feels responsible for the decimation of shark populations in the decades since the film’s release.

“I still fear … that sharks are somehow mad at me for the feeding frenzy of crazy sword fishermen that happened after 1975,” said Spielberg, 76.

“I really, truly regret that,” he added.

According to a study published by Nature, the worldwide population of sharks and rays declined by more than 71 percent between 1970 and 2018. A 2013 study estimated that 100 million sharks are killed annually. Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said 37 percent of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.

Some say “Jaws” influenced that downward trend. Chris Lowe, director of the shark lab at California State University at Long Beach, said the movie caused people to view sharks as malicious toward humans.

“‘Jaws’ was kind of a turning point,” Lowe said. “It got people thinking very negatively about sharks, which just made it so much easier to overfish them.”

Over the years, researchers have documented some of the negative portrayals of sharks in films like “Jaws.” A 2021 study concluded that 96 percent of shark films portrayed the animals as threatening. Last year, the Florida Museum of Natural History reported that sharks killed 11 people worldwide.

Gavin Naylor, who directs the Florida Program for Shark Research, said Spielberg may be too critical of himself. While Naylor notes that “Jaws” created interest in sharks, he believes people would’ve fished and sold them regardless.

“I don’t think he should feel terrible that he has caused everybody to start commercially fishing for them,” Naylor said. “There was a reaction to the movie by a few people that just wanted to catch a few sharks. But that was happening long before ‘Jaws.’”

Spielberg had directed other projects before “Jaws,” but the film was his first blockbuster. As a 27-year-old, Spielberg adapted the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley. The film follows residents of a New England beach town hunting a great white shark that’s killing swimmers. “Jaws” collected $100 million within 59 days and later surpassed “The Godfather” as the highest-grossing film worldwide — a record it maintained until “Star Wars” came out two years later.

Spielberg has since produced dozens of renowned movies, including “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List.” Still, he said the legacy of “Jaws” has bothered him.

“I truly and to this day regret the decimation of the shark population,” Spielberg told BBC, “because of the book and the film.” (Benchley, who wrote the “Jaws” novel, said in 2000 that he also feels somewhat responsible for the suffering of great white sharks.)

Lowe said he believes “Jaws” provoked the prevalence of shark-fishing tournaments. When other species became endangered in the 1980s, Lowe said, people overfished sharks with little pushback from the public.

“It made it easier for people to say, ‘You know what? These things are a menace,’” Lowe said. “The word ‘shark’ had that connotation, and people were less compelled to protect them.”

Naylor agrees “Jaws” expanded sharks’ popularity, including the demand for shark fin soup in the 1990s. But he said “Jaws” has become a scapegoat for a problem that people created.

“People have fished for sharks for a long time,” Naylor said. “And they’ve been frightened by sharks for a long time.”

But Lowe said stereotypes surrounding sharks are diminishing. In the past decade, he said, the majority of his students have pursued shark research to protect them.

“I don’t think it has the same impact as it did on my generation,” Lowe said of “Jaws.” “They start to see it as, ‘Okay, well, that was more about entertainment, and less about really informing us about what sharks are really about.’”

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