Spielberg’s iconic slogan jaws the series has etched sharks into popular culture as ruthless predators. But beyond the horror generated by the series, there remains a persistent fear of sharks, with consequences that extend into reality.
In South Australia, following encounters between humans and sharks, this fear led the Department of Education to ban marine-related activities in schools for the rest of the semester. And while safety is at the heart of such decisions, we must be wary of scaremongering, says UniSA shark expert Dr Brianna Le Busque.
Media Sensationalism and the ‘Shark Effect’
“When we hear about shark “attacks,” it definitely makes people nervous, especially when interactions and sightings are sensationalized by the media,” says Dr.
“Because most people don’t have personal interactions with sharks, much of what we know about sharks comes from what we see on TV or in movies. Films like jaws, Mega, or The Shallows depict sharks purposefully hunting and attacking humans, which not only creates excessive fear, but also strengthens any negative opinions people may already have.
“This is called the ‘Jaws Effect’ – a well-known phenomenon in which people have an excessive and irrational fear of sharks – today, almost 50 years after the first Jaws movie, it still influences people’s perceptions of sharks, impacts shark conservation efforts conservation and affects policy. decisions.
“This is what we have seen with the current bans on marine water activities. And the problem is that this can have negative impacts on children’s ideas about water and beach safety.”
Sharks in the movies: a distorted reality
In a new worldwide study from UniSA, Dr Le Busque shows how sharks are over-represented in the realm of “creature traits” – a subgenre of science fiction, horror or action films where creatures are the villains of the plot.
“Sharks are common in ‘feature creature’ films – they played too much, being the most common animal in this category of films. Furthermore, of all films depicting sharks (across various genres), 96% have overtly portrayed human-shark interactions as threatening.”
Decline in shark populations and need for balance
Over the past 50 years, oceanic sharks have declined by more than 70%, with one in three
Dr Le Busque says that although she believes bans on school activities are currently unjustified, she welcomes the early implementation of aerial shark patrols.
“Early monitoring of sharks is a good measure to protect swimmers, but we need a balance between people’s safety and access to the ocean,” says Dr. Le Busque.
“No one wants a shark attack to occur, but these bans are just creating the same fear generated on the ill-fated Amity Island in jaws. It’s just not the right way to go.”
Surf Life Saving SA CEO Damien Marangon says the ban on beach-based aquatic programs, without consultation or understanding of the facts and wider impact, was disappointing.
“While the shark attack is incredibly unfortunate, it is also important to remember that, tragically, many more people drown every year in South Australian waters than do shark attacks,” says Marangon.
“Over the last 20 years, we have averaged just over one instance per year. Despite incidents over the past month, our data shows that we have not seen an increase in shark numbers.
“We were concerned about the impact this would have on the 3,899 students, from 47 schools who were enrolled in this program by the end of this semester, who would not have had the opportunity to learn vital water safety skills, putting their future safety in and around the water.
“Decisions like this, taken in isolation, also unfortunately promote fear of the ocean, which could have broad and lasting impacts on our communities, local merchants, family businesses and the travel industry by needlessly exacerbating fear. of our ocean, and will impact visitors to our beaches and our State.
“We are actively working with the Department of Education’s Water Safety Unit on strategies to continue to ensure that all participants can complete these beach aquatic education programs safely and continue to make informed decisions based on data, research and information of interested parties. engagement.”
Reference: “Sharks, Spiders, Snakes, Oh My God: A Creature Feature Film Review” by Brianna Le Busque and Carla Litchfield, August 31, 2023, Environmental Media Journal.