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Shark movies severely affect conservation efforts, study suggests

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By Christy Somos, CTVNews.ca writer

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    TORONTO, Ontario (CTV Network) — Shark movies like the 1975 blockbuster “Jaws” scared decades-worth of audiences out of the water, but also severely affected conservation efforts to save the often endangered animal, a new study from the University of South Australia suggests.

The study, published in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife last week, had conservation psychology researchers evaluate how sharks are portrayed in movies, finding that 96 per cent of shark films overtly portray sharks as a threat to humans.

“Most of what people know about sharks is obtained through movies, or the news, where sharks are typically presented as something to be deeply feared,” said study author Briana Le Busque in a news release.

“Since Jaws, we’ve seen a proliferation of monster shark movies – Open Water, The Meg, 47 Metres Down, Sharknado – all of which overtly present sharks as terrifying creatures with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. This is just not true,” she continued.

Le Busque said the “legacy of Jaws” persists to this day and that filmmakers and media outlets have a responsibility to “debunk shark myths and build shark conservation.”

“Sharks are at much greater risk of harm from humans, than humans from sharks, with global shark populations in rapid decline, and many species at risk of extinction,” she said. “Exacerbating a fear of sharks that’s disproportionate to their actual threat, damages conservation efforts, often influencing people to support potentially harmful mitigation strategies.”

In an effort to help overhaul public perception and counter the culture of fear around them, officials in New South Wales and Queensland in Australia are describing shark attacks as “interactions” or “negative encounters.”

Australian Marine Conservation Society shark researcher Leonardo Guida said not using terms like “attack” will “help dispel inherent assumptions that sharks are ravenous, mindless man-eating monsters,” according to local reports.

While sharks are predatory animals, they very rarely hunt, kill and eat humans. Many shark encounters do not end in fatalities and are chalked up to a case of “mistaken identity” where a surfer or swimmer appears to the shark as a seal – one of their primary food sources.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says the demand for shark fins, overfishing and use of ocean longlines are causing massive damage to the world’s shark population, with up to 100 million sharks and rays caught each year across the globe.

Research organizations like OCEARCH, which partially operates out of Nova Scotia, tag sharks in the open ocean to collect data like migration patterns to assist in conservation and policy decision making. The public can track sharks OCEARCH has tagged in real time online in an effort to make their data and mission accessible.

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