The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Presidents have long fanned fears about sharks to display toughness

Perceptions of sharks are changing as Americans learn they pose far less of a threat than people thought

A great white shark swims off the coast of the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts on July 15. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

As eager viewers wrap up this year’s Shark Week, it’s time to reevaluate the power of sharks in American politics. Several reports of shark bites near New York’s Fire Island have prompted city officials to close Rockaway Beach for swimming over concerns about future harm that sharks may cause. And yet, statistics show that the likelihood of being bitten by a shark and dying is very, very low: 1 in more than 3.7 million.

Despite the rarity of a shark attack, sharks have long been villains in American society, folklore, and yes, presidential politics. In fact, the commanders in chief have contended with sharks in varying ways over the years, often using the fish as a stand-in to assuage the public’s other fears and anxieties.

Sharks have long fascinated presidents. In 1751, for example, George Washington wrote about sharks in his diary while sailing to Barbados, the only time he left the North American mainland. He wrote: “Shark; this fish from its peculiarly formed jaw and teeth is also called the dog fish. Some of the species are harmless to man but others are particularly ferocious and dangerous.”

Other presidents used the fish to build a cult of masculinity around them and strengthen the executive office. The hypermasculine image associated with Theodore Roosevelt and the “Rough Riders” during the Spanish-American War, for instance, was in no small part attributed to their ability to ride horses through swamps and overcome whatever environment they were thrust into. To this end, Roosevelt wrote, “if attacked by a man-eating shark, [I] would be much more interested in evading or repelling the attack than in determining the precise specific relations of the shark.”

But it was Woodrow Wilson who began crafting public policy on sharks to become the first “tough on sharks” president. This followed four fatal shark attacks up the New Jersey inner shoreline on the first 12 days of July of 1916. The attacks were believed to have been the work of a single “man-eating” shark. The incidents made it onto Wilson’s War Cabinet agenda, and Coast Guard ships were deployed to help round up and kill the scoundrel sharks. One shark was in fact found and killed with remains still in its stomach. The threat was addressed by an all-of-government approach to killing a perceived killer shark.

Wilson learned that sharks made for good political targets and a way to show presidents taking action to help the American people. This crisis management was designed to show executive protection of people — namely rich donors who were living in the resorts off the coast — during a time of need.

It also made for a good story, one the public eagerly consumed. Horace Mazet published several successful books about bloodthirsty sharks in the 1930s, including 1933’s “Shark! Shark!: The Thirty-Year Odyssey of a Pioneer Shark Hunter.” Mazet helped popularize the idea that sharks caught “shark rabies,” the precursor to the rogue shark theory on which the 1975 popular film “Jaws” is based.

Based on this lore, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who often tried to control public perceptions of his physical health as he was living with the effects of polio, told the U.S. press about how he fought a 235-pound shark for 90 minutes before landing the fish in 1938. The picture of the president sitting alongside a large strung-up shark was circulated to the public by the White House.

John F. Kennedy similarly used sharks to beef up his masculine persona, as when he brought up the heroic story of how he helped save other crew members onboard a patrol torpedo boat that had been rammed by the Japanese during World War II. His tale of that moment in 1943 included how he had to swim through shark-infested waters.

Such stories may have boosted presidents’ political image by showing them as strong and fearless leaders, but they also boosted the idea that sharks posed a real threat. In 1969, a few years shy of Richard M. Nixon’s downfall from Watergate, taxpayers paid to keep the president safe from sharks at his private beach house in Florida. Nixon asked the Secret Service to install shark nets around his home during his presidency following shark sightings in the waters off Key Biscayne. According to a government report, “The Navy has installed and maintained at the request of the secret service a shark net in Biscayne Bay to protect the President while swimming there.”

The horror tale “Jaws” helped sway the general public and government about the “dangers” posed by sharks. Following the film’s release, the federal government began to see sharks more as “waste fish,” lowering their status in regulatory fishery protections, while many local jurisdictions hosted regular weekend shark derbies where sharks were butchered.

A shift, however, was on the horizon, as sharks received new and perhaps more sympathetic treatments in the coming decades. For instance, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week premiered in 1988 and began to gain traction among the general public in the 1990s. By 1994, California even added protections against fishing or catching great white sharks in its waters.

Several American presidents began using sharks to craft a story of hope for the public. Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama each created shark sanctuaries that helped preserve endangered species. In 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noted that “President [H.W.] Bush enjoyed the distinction of having the most national marine sanctuaries designated during any presidential administration,” totaling six.

A shifting political climate has helped to protect sharks, and the public anxieties surrounding shark “attacks” seem to be decreasing. The work of activists and scientists has helped demonstrate that shark bites are often the result of the shark mistaking a human for one of its natural prey. Thus, a new era in human-shark relations is upon us, with the arrival of the “Save the Shark” movement.

Statistics indicate that public perceptions are indeed changing when it comes to sharks. In 2015 and 2016 surveys, 66 percent of people agreed that the phrase “shark attack” was too sensational. This makes sense given additional data that only 38 percent of reported shark attacks resulted in injury.

And yet, the idea of the shark as villain has also persisted in American political imagination. President Donald Trump declared an informal war on sharks in 2018. “I’m not a big fan of sharks, either. I don’t know, how many votes am I going to lose?” he said. In noting some people had asked him to contribute to funds dedicated to saving sharks, he claimed to have responded with: “No, thank you. I have other things I can contribute to.”

The history of sharks and the American presidency make clear that the fish have served as a powerful tool to shape public perceptions. Indeed, sharks have long been used as a political foil, creating a feeding frenzy, wherein presidents circle and attack sharks to create a moment of opportunity for themselves and their agendas.