“I’m still afraid … that the sharks are kind of mad at me because of the crazy swordfisherman feeding frenzy that happened after 1975,” Spielberg, 76, said.
“I really, really regret it,” he added.
According to a study published by Nature, the world’s population of sharks and rays fell by more than 71 percent between 1970 and 2018. A 2013 study estimated that 100 million sharks are killed annually. Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said that 37 percent of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.
Some say that “Jaws” influenced that downward trend. Chris Lowe, director of the shark lab at California State University, Long Beach, said the film caused people to view sharks as malicious towards humans.
“‘Jaws’ was a turning point,” Lowe said. “It made people think very negatively about sharks, which only facilitated their overfishing.”
Over the years, researchers have documented some of the negative portrayals of sharks in movies like “Jaws.” A 2021 study concluded that 96 percent of shark movies show animals as threatening. Last year, the Florida Museum of Natural History reported that sharks had killed 11 people worldwide.
Gavin Naylor, who heads the Florida Shark Research Program, said Spielberg may be too critical of himself. While Naylor notes that “Jaws” has sparked interest in sharks, he believes people would have hunted and sold them regardless.
“I don’t think he should feel terrible about forcing everyone to start commercial fishing for them,” Naylor said. “There was a reaction to the film from a few people who just wanted to catch a few sharks. But that was happening long before ‘Jaws’.”
Spielberg directed other projects before “Jaws”, but the film was his first blockbuster. As a 27-year-old, Spielberg adapted Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel. The film follows the residents of a coastal town in New England who hunt down a great white dog that kills bathers. “Jaws” grossed $100 million in 59 days and later surpassed “The Godfather” as the highest-grossing film worldwide – a record it held until “Star Wars” came out two years later.
Spielberg has since produced dozens of famous films, including “ET the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List.” However, he said that the legacy of “Jaws” bothered him.
“I really regret to this day the decimation of the shark population,” Spielberg told the BBC, “because of the book and the movie.” (Benchley, who wrote the novel “Jaws,” said in 2000 that he also felt somewhat responsible for the suffering of great white sharks.)
Lowe said he believes “Jaws” sparked the prevalence of shark-hunting tournaments. When other species became endangered in the 1980s, Lowe said, people over-hunted sharks with little public opposition.
“It was 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 compelled to protect them.”
Naylor agrees that “Jaws” increased the popularity of sharks, including the demand for shark fin soup in the 1990s. But he said “Jaws” became a scapegoat for the problem created by humans.
“Humans have hunted sharks for a long time,” Naylor said. “And they were scared by sharks for a long time.”
But Lowe said stereotypes about sharks are diminishing. In the past decade, he said, most of his students have researched sharks to protect them.
“I don’t think it has the same impact as my generation,” Lowe told “Jaws.” “They start to see it as, ‘Okay, well, it was more about entertainment and less about actually informing about what sharks really are.'”