Months after “Jaws” debuted in June 1975, the thriller became the highest-grossing film ever. Critics still rank director Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster as one of the most influential films in cinematic history.
Spielberg, however, says he’s still worried about another “Jaws” legacy. In an interview with BBC Radio released on Sunday, Spielberg said he feels responsible for decimating shark populations in the decades since the film’s release.
“I’m still afraid … that the sharks are somehow angry at me about the feeding frenzy of the mad swordfishers that occurred after 1975,” said Spielberg, 76.
“I really, really regret it,” she added.
According to a study published in Nature, the global population of sharks and rays decreased by more than 71% between 1970 and 2018. A 2013 study estimated that 100 million sharks they are killed every year. Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said 37% of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.
Some say “Jaws” influenced that downward trend. Chris Lowe, director of the shark laboratory at California State University in Long Beach, said the film it has caused people to regard sharks as harmful towards humans.
“’Jaws’ was kind of a turning point,” Lowe said. “It got people thinking very negatively about sharks, which made it much easier to overfish them.”
Over the years, researchers have documented some of the negative portrayals of sharks in movies like “Jaws.” A 2021 study concluded that 96% of shark movies portrayed the animals as menacing. Last year, the Florida Museum of Natural History reported that sharks killed 11 people worldwide.
Gavin Naylor, who heads 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 have caught and sold them regardless.
“I don’t think he should feel bad about getting everyone to start fishing for them commercially,” Naylor said. “There was a backlash to the film from some people who just wanted to catch some sharks. But that was way before ‘Jaws’”.
Spielberg had directed other projects before Jaws, but the film was his first blockbuster. At 27, Spielberg adapted Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel. The film follows the residents of a New England beach town on the hunt for a great white shark that is killing beachgoers. ‘Jaws’ raised $100 million in 59 days and later overtook ‘The Godfather’ as the top-grossing film worldwide, a record it held until the release of ‘Star Wars’ two years later.
Spielberg has since produced dozens of popular films, including ET the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and Schindler’s List. However, he said the legacy of “Jaws” bothered him.
“I am truly sorry and to this day the decimation of the shark population,” Spielberg told the BBC, “because of the book and the film.” (Benchley, who wrote the novel “Jaws,” said in 2000 that he also feels somewhat responsible for the suffering of great white sharks.)
Lowe said he believes “Jaws” caused 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 threat,’” Lowe said. “The word ‘shark’ had that connotation and people were less obligated to protect them.”
Naylor agrees that “Jaws” broadened the popularity of sharks, including the demand for shark fin soup in the 1990s. But he said “Jaws” became a scapegoat for a problem that people have created.
“People have been fishing for sharks for a long time,” Naylor said. “And they’ve been scared of sharks for a long time.”
But Lowe said stereotypes about sharks are diminishing. Over the past decade, he said, most of his students have pursued shark research to protect them.
“I don’t think it has the same impact it has on my generation,” Lowe said of “Jaws.” “They start to see it as, ‘Okay, well, it was more about entertainment, and less about really informing us about what sharks really are.'”