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How did shark attack hysteria originate in the US?


In early July of 1916, a series of shark attacks dotted the coast of the Jersey Shore, setting in motion a trend of fear and unease that still weighs on the minds of beachgoers to this day.

Most of the panic surrounding these attacks was from the idea the suspected culprit was a single shark, leading Australian scientist Dr. Victor Coppleson to coin the term “rogue shark” to describe such malicious, man-eating beasts.

The rogue shark theory maintains that certain sharks, due to injury or some other mysterious factor, develop a taste for humans, causing them to purposely and repeatedly seek out humans as prey. But is there any truth to these claims?

Great White Shark

The Shallows, Gansbaai, Western Cape, SOUTH AFRICA (Bernard Dupont/Flickr)


“We keep a compendium of investigations on shark attacks worldwide that was started in 1958, with data going back to the mid-1500s,” said George Burgess, the director of the International Shark Attack File. “After looking at more than 6,000 of these investigations, we found very few that give any indication that a single shark was sequentially going after human beings.”

The Jersey Shore attacks mark one of the only times in history that a single shark has been responsible for multiple, unprovoked attacks. Experts like Burgess stress that instances like these are exceptions to the rule, not the rule itself. Still, some dissenting experts believe two or more sharks could have been involved.

“I suppose there is a tendency in humans to look for a connection, and we don’t have to look far to find people who are making up conspiracy explanations for all kinds of things,” Burgess said. “Perhaps the Australian who was pushing this theory was connecting some dots that weren’t there for whatever reason.”

Since very few people will actually find themselves face to face with a shark in real life, much of what the public knows about sharks is learned through depictions shown in popular media. This can be problematic, given that sensationalism and misinformation are frequently present in the entertainment industry’s portrayal of sharks.

Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller Jaws is a perfect example of how popular culture can influence public perception.

“Of course, [Jaws] was a work of fiction, but they intended for people to believe the story line as any good work of art does,” Burgess said. “So, a lot of people came out of the movie with the thought process of ‘everything we saw in there is true,' when in fact, artistic license was used and some facts were distorted for the benefit of the presentation.”

In the years that followed the release of Jaws, sharks were quickly elevated to public enemy number one. Beach tourism dropped significantly, and people began to hunt sharks for sport, seeking to rid the oceans of the seemingly dangerous animals once and for all.

Shark Fishing

A giant 13-foot Great White shark is lifted by an earthmover for a crowd of hundreds to see, June 29, 1979, after the giant shark was brought to the local marina in Center Moriches, N.Y., caught after a 14 1/2 hour struggle, was landed in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island. (AP Photo)


But the attention wasn’t all bad. As the number of sharks began to decrease, scientists took notice, leading to a push for more funding and research.

“Animals that are important sport or food fish would always get the money first,” Burgess said. “After the decline [in shark populations] began, some funding started to come in, and the study of sharks took off a lot more than [it] had been in the previous 30 or 50 years. From that, we know more about sharks today, so it was a double-edged sword.”

As for the current state of affairs, sharks are still largely misunderstood by the public, but perceptions are getting better. Scientists know more about sharks today than ever before. Considering human and shark interactions will only increase and both populations continue to grow, this is essential.

“The hysteria that Jaws underscored still exists in certain places, and even when it's understood that that sort of thing isn’t real, I think there’s a temptation to resurrect it for certain purposes,” Burgess said. “The reality is in any given year, sharks kill about six people worldwide, and humans are probably putting about 100 million sharks away. It’s at least 10 million to 1, the ratio of who’s killing who.”

“So obviously the story isn’t shark bites man; it’s that man bites shark.”