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Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute

Pop culture is a mixed bag. It’s created some very misleading impressions and it’s created some very helpful impressions I think. One thing pop culture does is it helps people to see that what is swimming around in the ocean are wild animals and some of them really do have lives of their own in ways that we can relate to.

Sylvia Earle, Deep Ocean Exploration and Research

Peter Benchley has spent years now trying to establish a counter point to the myth that, that sharks are really out to get us. Made a good story, but that’s all it was. It was a good story.

Leon Panetta, Pew Oceans Commission

Movies like Jaws sell a lot of tickets to people who want to see movies like that but in many ways they also distort the wonderful nature of that creature.

Sal Jorgensen, Monterey Bay Aquarium

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario of the ocean without these top predators. Shark populations are declining dramatically. They're not capable of rebounding the way some other fish populations are, just due to their slow reproductive rates.

Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute

I call it the last buffalo hunt. Just as at the end of the great buffalo hunt, people were killing buffaloes just for their tongues. We now kill millions of sharks just for their fins.


Hong Kong stands at the center of the global shark trade. At markets all over the city, dried shark fins sell for over $300 per pound. Driving the demand is Asia's exploding economy. At fashionable restaurants a bowl of shark fin soup can cost more than a hundred dollars. Unfortunately, a thriving economy coupled with the demonization of a species has helped us ignore the mass slaughter of some species of shark.

Shark fin for sale in fish market.

Shark fin for sale in fish market.

Of all the animal species in the world, few have survived for as long or have evolved into as many sizes and shapes as the shark. Their streamlined bodies are perfectly designed for their role as the ocean's top predator. It gives them the speed and hunting ability that helps them maintain the delicate balance within our ocean's food chain. It's been this way for over 300 million years.

In the West, our popular culture is rife with epic stories of men trying to harness and tame the powers of the ocean’s animals. In the 1956 screen adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab is obsessed with killing an enormous white whale. Though the film is primarily remembered for the animal's desperate fight for survival, Melville's story has much to say about those who try to control the natural world. In the end, he allows the whale to survive.

The Old Man and the Sea is also about the battle between man and a giant sea creature. Though Ernest Hemingway's main character doesn't hesitate when it comes time for the kill, the old man never loses his respect for the giant marlin, and ultimately Hemingway portrays the creature as a noble hero.

Great White Shark

Great White Shark

In 1975, the world's attitude towards ocean animals changed radically. That's when a film based on Peter Benchley's novel Jaws, tapped into the most primordial of human fears. Before his death, Benchley remembered what inspired him to create one of the screen's most frightening monsters. “The shark was like a maniac to me, it was an unstoppable uncontrollable force,” recalled Benchley. “And that, when I was a child, was also the most scary thing, was the maniac, the guy with the axe who you couldn't stop.”

“If there is one thing I know for dead certain is that I couldn’t possibly write Jaws today. I could not turn this beautiful beast into a villain.”

—Jaws author Peter Benchley

Unfortunately the damage was done. The demonizing of the great white shark in Jaws, which was meant solely to entertain, may have unintentionally helped put some species of sharks on the edge of extinction.

Everything changed with the release of Jaws. That's when the predator became the prey. Each year nearly 100 million sharks are slaughtered. Most often their fins are cut off while they are still alive. Then the sharks are thrown back into the ocean where they drown or bleed to death.

Scientists are now telling us that some species of these extraordinary predators of the ocean could become extinct because of man. It is man, so often portrayed as the hero battling the unstoppable forces of the ocean’s animals, who is now the villain.



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Read more about The State of the Ocean's Animals:
Introduction | Antarctica | China | Florida | Japan | Monterey | Pacific Northwest

 

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Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization | State of the Planet's Oceans | State of the Ocean's Animals
State of the Planet's Wildlife | The State of the Planet | Future Conditional | On the Brink | Hot Zones
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