The Western Australian government's shark-attack policy is heavily influenced by "Jaws," the classic Hollywood thriller that's terrorized audiences since 1975 — and that's a terrible, terrible thing, according to Christopher Neff.
Neff, a public policy lecturer at the University of Sydney's Department of Government and International Relations, delivers that message in a new paper published in the December issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science.
In the movie, a great white with a taste for human flesh and a desire for revenge slaughters residents of a New England beach town before it's eventually hunted down and killed.
In real life, Neff argues, the government's "imminent threat policy," which was designed to catch and kill sharks in the wake of an attack, "is predicated on Hollywood fiction" — the idea that once a shark has bitten someone, it will strike again and again.
Neff examined shark policies between 2000 and 2014 and found "striking similarities" to the film. He has a name for the influence cinematic fiction plays on real-life policy: The "Jaws" Effect.
"This policy is using myths as the basis for killing sharks that are protected by law and which provides no real beach safety,” Neff said in a statement. "This fiction serves an important political purpose because films allow politicians to rely on familiar narratives following shark bites to blame individual sharks in order to make the events governable and to trump evidence-based science."
The evidence, according to Neff, says that shark bites are rarely fatal and that there is no such thing as a "rogue shark" that hunts humans. Since 1580, Neff said, there have been a reported 2,569 shark-bite incidents off six of the seven continents (some of the statistics are based on oral history), according to the International Shark Attack File.
And yet, Neff argues, attacks are rarely the result of the same shark; public policies designed to "control" sharks near beaches — such as the Western Australian government's $22 million "shark-bite mitigation efforts" — kill protected species and harm conservation efforts, he says.
"In the waters off the U.S. eastern seaboard," according to livescience.com, "populations of many species of sharks have dropped by 50 percent and some have fallen by as much as 90 percent."
Neff cites shark biologist John Stevens, who has noted that humans are not normal prey for sharks. If they were, Stevens is quoted as saying, "I can assure you we would be having rather more attacks than we do."
Changes in the public's perception of sharks didn't start with "Jaws," according to George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research in Gainesville.
"Perceptions especially changed during World War II, when a lot of people were put out to sea, and stories of shark attacks after ships or airplanes going down rose," Burgess told livescience.com. "So there was this stereotype of sharks being man-eaters that had to be looked out for."
But the perception worsened with the release of "Jaws," Burgess added, because the terrifying blockbuster portrayed the animals as having human-like memory that spurred them to target specific victims.
"The movie certainly gave sharks too much of an ability to engage in revenge," he said.
That myth has even been dispelled by the man who wrote "Jaws," according to Neff's paper. In the summer of 2000, three fatal shark attacks occurred in a span of three months, creating a public uproar that supported the notion that the killings were the work of a single shark. Several months later, another swimmer was killed and died from blood loss in front of beach-goers.
With huge amounts of attention given to the incidents in the media, and many witnesses comparing the attacks to scenes from the movie, "Jaws" author Peter Benchley wrote a letter to Australians in the Guardian newspaper.
"While I cannot pretend to comprehend the grief felt by Ken Crew's friends and family, and would not conceive of diminishing the horror of the attack, I plead with the people of Australia – who live with, understand and, in general, respect sharks more than any other nation on earth – to refrain from slaughtering this magnificent ocean predator in the hope of achieving some catharsis, some fleeting satisfaction, from wreaking vengeance on one of nature's most exquisite creations."
"This was not a rogue shark, tantalised by the taste of human flesh and bound now to kill and kill again. Such creatures do not exist, despite what you might have derived from Jaws."
Even so, Neff argues, the myth persists that there are sharks that remain close to swimming areas for extended periods. In September, Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett referred to such "rogue sharks" and said they needed to be caught and removed.
“The message from this research is that politicians do not have a right to their own set of scientific facts about sharks, no matter how popular the movie," Neff says.
He adds: "Unpacking the politics of shark bites, or any public policy issue, involves addressing the way words and images are used to paint a picture for the public and inform policy choices. This research therefore offers broader implications for policy analysis. [It] identifies a worrying style of policymaking where widely known fiction can be used to navigate the attribution of blame and to prescribe policy responses.”