Monday, May 4, 2015

Natalie Belfiglio: Blood in the Water

(English 102 -- Professor Benton)

Blood in the Water

What comes to mind when you hear the word “shark”? Do you think of Steven Spielberg’s movie, Jaws (1975)? Shark Week? Man-eaters? Monsters? Sharks have been given a bad reputation over the years, which is why some people only see them as mindless killers, and that they, the people, are the shark’s prey, when in reality the tables are turned. The objective of this essay is to argue that people are more of a threat to sharks than they are to us. Why we need sharks and why they need us, and reasons why they should be protected instead of hunted are also topics I will be discussing.

Sharks have fascinated people for hundreds of years, and it’s not hard to see why. There are over 400 different species of shark, each with unique characteristics. The tiger shark, which is known for its tiger-like stripes on it’s back, is known as the “garbage can of the ocean”. They’ve been known to eat just about anything, ranging from sea turtles to suits of armor. Another shark, known for its aggressiveness in particular, is the bull shark. The unique thing about bull sharks is their ability in live in both salt water and fresh water. One of the most curious and misunderstood species of shark however, is carcharodon carcharias, better known as the great white shark. Being the largest known predatory fish, some grow up to twenty feet in length and weigh in at over 4,000 pounds, and can be found cruising in temperate warn and tropical waters. Their diet consists of sea lions, elephant seals, occasionally other sharks and on rare occasions they have been known to mistake humans as prey. (Bradford) It is difficult to wrap one’s head around the fact that there are great whites living in our oceans.

Now imagine this; what if a huge great white shark came to an island and had a taste for human flesh and it didn’t go away? That is exactly what Peter Benchley thought when he read an article in the newspaper about a fisherman who caught a 4,500-pound great white shark off the East coast of Montauk, New York, and the idea for Jaws was made. Benchley would go on to write Jaws, and it became a bestseller. Even before the novel, Benchley studied sharks and was fascinated with them, however at the time the behaviors of sharks, especially the great white, were unknown. Many people thought that the book might make a great movie. What Peter Benchley, and eventually Steven Spielberg, would come to realize is that their rise to fame from Jaws would turn into a war waged by humans against sharks. Without even knowing what they had done, they had put a target on the back of any shark that swam too close to the surface. (Broughton)

“What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim, and eat and make little sharks and that’s all.” (Spielberg) This is a quote from Steven Spielberg’s movie Jaws, spoken by Matt Hooper, a young, enthusiastic marine biologist who is called in to go to Amity Island, a fictional town in Martha’s Vineyard, to help track down a rogue great white shark that has been feeding on the island’s residents. Hooper is called in by the Amity chief of police, Martin Brody, who has tried to close down the beaches for the public’s safety but is persuaded not to by the mayor, who wants the beaches open since Amity relies on it’s summer tourism for income. As the attacks continue, the town hires local shark fishermen, Quint, and together he, Brody and Hooper set off on the open ocean to face the monstrous shark. (Spielberg)

Jaws portrayed the shark as the antagonist of the film, a twenty-five-foot rogue great white with a taste for human blood. In 1975, when the movie was released, not much was known about sharks. Fishermen thought of them as nuisances, because sharks would snag the fishermen’s bait and sever the line with their teeth. Other people didn’t think about them at all, not even when they went to the beach, as most people thought that sharks did not attack people, and that they didn’t swim in shallow waters. However when Jaws came into theaters in the summer of 1975, panic arose, like it does in the movie. (Choi)

The film hit a nerve in the public, people were realizing that yes, sharks do swim in shallow waters, right where bathers were also swimming. It opened up this primal fear in people that when you are swimming in the ocean, you really don’t know what is beneath the surface of the water. It also played into the fear and nightmare of being eaten alive by a large predator. Sharks were seen as monsters and man-eaters, causing people to think twice before going into the water, whether it be the ocean, lakes, swimming pools, or even bathtubs. (Choi)

People believed what they had seen in the movie and thought that all sharks were hungry for human flesh. Fishermen who had seen Jaws and watched the fishermen in the movie hunting for the shark, started going after any kind of shark they could find, killing them and stringing them up by their tail, like in the movie. Big game fishing tournaments became a very popular sport, and many sharks were caught and killed, even if they were not great whites. It was considered a good thing that the sharks were being slaughtered and the people that killed them were considered heroes. In the eyes of the public, the only good shark was a dead shark. (Choi)

While many people got the wrong idea about sharks after Jaws, some people became fascinated with sharks. They wanted to be like Matt Hooper and study marine biology, and more specifically great white sharks. When Jaws first came to the big screen, not much was known about sharks. Sharks weren’t really even thought of by people, and if they were, they were thought of as a nuisance, especially by fishermen, as sharks would take their bait and snag their lines while out fishing for other big game fish. Thanks to Jaws, an increase in funding was given to marine biologists to learn more about sharks. Money was put into research for ways that could prevent shark attacks, as well as programs that educated the public on ways to possibly avoid being the victim of a shark attack. (Choi)

What people didn’t understand at the time of the book and the movie’s release is that the behaviors and actions of “Bruce” the mechanical shark that was used in Jaws, was not actually how great white sharks behaved. If Jaws were viewed from a scientific perspective today, it would be laughable. Although little was known about white sharks, what marine biologists do know is that “Bruce” apart from his large size is totally unrealistic. First off, there is no evidence that sharks are vengeful creatures, or that they target specific people or families. There is also no evidence that sharks can develop a taste for human blood. (Carey) However, the theory of a rogue shark is up for interpretation.

In the film, Matt Hooper mentions the rogue shark theory giving the example of events that happened in 1916 in New Jersey. Jaws may have been fictional, but the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916 are in fact, true. In the course of a twelve-day period, four people were killed and one seriously injured. What makes the attacks even more interesting is that the last three attacks did not take place in the ocean; they happened in Matawan Creek, which is thirty miles inland of Raritan Bay. Two days after the final attack, a juvenile great white shark was caught in Raritan Bay. The contents of its stomach contained almost 15 pounds of human flesh and bone. After the shark was caught the attacks stopped and the newspapers reported that the “New Jersey man-eater” had been caught. (Krystek)

The problem with the situation is that white sharks cannot swim in fresh water. Bull sharks are the only known sharks to be able to swim up rivers or in creeks. It is still up for debate, almost 100 years later whether the attacks were the work of one shark or multiple sharks. This was when the theory of the rogue shark was thought of. To this day, there is no scientific evidence that rogue sharks actually exist and the fact that the last record of something like this happened in 1916, when very little was known about sharks, suggests that it was something else that caused these shark attacks and not a shark’s taste for human blood. (Krystek) It is rumored that these attacks inspired some of the attacks in Jaws as well.

Most people would think that the man who created the book that ruined the great white’s reputation would hate sharks, thinking that they were “man-eaters”, therefore portraying the shark in Jaws as such. However Peter Benchley would turn out to be, not only the white shark’s greatest defender, but also a conservation activist for all sharks. He even stated later in life that if he could rewrite the book, the shark would not be the villain but the victim, saying that sharks are more the oppressed than the oppressors in the world that we live in. (Dowling)

While diving off of Costa Rica in a nature preserve known as the Cocos Island with his wife, Peter saw a tropical paradise, an aquatic wonderland. That tropical paradise turned into a desolate graveyard. After hours of diving Peter came across the bodies of dead sharks, with their fins cut off, and mutilated. His wife, Wendy, would later say that Peter’s image of the great white as a monster tapped into the public’s deepest fears, the fear of being stalked and eaten alive by a large predator. When he saw the dead bodies of those sharks with their fins sawed off, it tapped into his deepest fear that his book was the reason that these sharks had been tortured and killed. (Dowling)

In reality, Benchley is not responsible for the killings of millions of sharks a year. Yes, his book did give untrue, monster-like characteristics to sharks that struck fear into its readers. However many positive things came from Jaws, like an increased interest in marine biology and shark conservation. The thing that is responsible for killing millions of sharks a year is no work of fiction like Jaws, it is very real, and it will destroy our oceans if it is not stopped.

There is a delicacy in China, that dates back all the way to the Sung Dynasty. Traditionally only served at weddings and banquets, it is a dish that is purchased to show one’s extreme wealth. Just one cup of it can cost upwards to $2,000 dollars or more. Wondering why or how it could cost this much for one cup of soup? The answer is simple. The main ingredient that gives the dish its name is extremely valuable, not only that, but highly illegal. (Shark Truth)

Shark fin soup is one of the main reasons why so many different species of shark are in danger of going extinct. No one species of shark is targeted; it can be any shark ranging from oceanic white-tips to whale sharks. The name itself gives the answer as to why the sharks are in danger. In order to make shark fin soup, it requires the fin of a shark, and what’s worse is that the fins are tasteless; they are merely added for texture. Shark finning is illegal in most parts of the world, however that doesn’t stop people from doing it. Shark fins are almost considered a black market item because of all of the shark finning laws. (Shark Truth)

Shark finning is the horrible process in which a shark is caught, brought aboard a boat, it is either stabbed or clubbed and then it’s fins, the dorsal and both of the pectoral fins are cut off and the shark is then thrown back into the ocean. The way that sharks breathe is through their gills, and the way that water passes through their gills is by swimming. Without their fins to help them swim, the shark will slowly spiral to the bottom of the ocean floor where it will drown and will eventually be eaten by fish or other sharks. Shark finning has wiped out over 60% of shark populations in the past fifteen years. However, because the shark fin trade is a multi-billion dollar industry, more people are concerned about making money than helping to keep shark populations thriving, which will be the downfall of many businesses in the end. (Pepelko)

Believe it or not, sharks do need protection. Yes, they are at the top of the aquatic food chain, but in the grand scheme of things, humans are above them. Not only do sharks need us, but we also need sharks. Marine tourism is important to many coastal places around the world, and that includes shark watching and even cage diving with these predators. Cage diving and scuba diving with sharks is great for tourism, and some places rely on that for their income. If the sharks are gone, so is the money. What it comes down to is that sharks are worth more alive than they are dead, because if you organize a shark hunting tour, you will only get a few thousand dollars for that one excursion and from that one shark. However if you keep that shark alive, and organize cage diving, or shark watching tours, tourists will still want to pay thousands of dollars to see the sharks. Instead of killing one shark and getting money for it’s fins, it benefits both parties to keep the shark alive so that the people that run the tours can continue to make money off of it and the shark gets to keep it’s fins as well as it’s life. (Eilperin:235)

Shark finning is one of the main reasons that so many population numbers have decreased, but what if they wiped out sharks completely? Sharks have outlived the dinosaurs and have lived in the oceans for over 400 million years. Some would say the world is better off without them, but in reality the world would fall apart without them. Sharks are at the top of the aquatic food chain and if they were gone, the oceans would be thrown totally out of balance. All of the animals, including sea lions, and sea turtles that sharks rely on for food would overpopulate, which would cause a ripple effect and cause other marine life to overpopulate and so on. Coral reefs would also die because sharks are responsible for illuminating harmful parasites that could infect the corals. According to scientists, if the sharks were gone, the oceans would resemble swamps, inhabited by jellyfish, algae and microbes. They would look nothing like the oceans that we know and enjoy today, so when you look at the pristine coral reefs and the nice clear water, remember that its because sharks are there that makes it is possible. (Murray)

Sharks fascinate us and they probably always will. But why do they fascinate us? Is it because of our fear of them or the fact that they are the largest predator in the ocean? We are fascinated with sharks because they do scare us and we don’t know a lot about them. That mystery and fear is what will hold our interest in them for years to come. Yes, they are predators, but in essence so are humans. Sharks do not target humans, but humans because of our lack of knowledge and fear target sharks, whether for their fins or the mindset that the world would be better off without them. The fact remains however, is that we do need sharks; they keep the marine ecosystem in check and provide great tourism income. Sharks need us because they need us to respect that the ocean is their home, that when we go swimming, the sharks can’t just leave. It is our job, as decent human beings that we continue to salvage and preserve the aquatic communities and that includes protecting sharks.

Work Cited

Bradford, Alina, Facts About Great White Sharks, Live Science (October 31, 2014):

Broughton, Philip Delves, Jaws Author Now Regrets His ‘Attack’ on Sharks, The Salt Lake Tribune (April 4, 2000):

Carey, Bjorn, The Truth About Great White Sharks, 30 Years After ‘Jaws’, Live Science (July 7, 2005):

Choi, Charles Q., How ‘Jaws’ Forever Changed Our Views of Great White Sharks, Live Science (June 20, 2010):

Dowling, David, How the Creator of ‘Jaws’ Became the Shark’s Greatest Defender, Narratively :

Eilperin, Juliet. Demon Fish. Random House, 2011: 234-235

History of Shark Fin Soup, Shark Truth (2009-2015):

Jaws (USA: Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Krystek, Lee, Rogue Shark! The Jersey Shore Attacks of 1916- Part 2, The UnMuseum (2009):

Murray, Bill, “A World Without Sharks”, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, (September 7, 2010):

Pepelko, Kristina, 7 Alarming Facts About the Shark Fin Trade, One Green Planet (October 28, 2013):

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