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What Jaws Teaches Us About Scientists and the Future of Shark Bite Politics

neffDr. Christopher Neff is a Lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Government at the University of Sydney. He completed the first PhD on the “Politics of Shark Attacks” and has been published in Marine Policy, Coastal Management and the Journal of Homosexuality. 

Jaws is a great horror movie. Personally, it’s one of my favorites. Politically, it kills me. While it has certainly inspired generations of marine biologists, researchers and social scientists (like me) since its release in 1975, it has also served as the most powerful vehicle to advance public fear of sharks in modern history. These two different implications become problematic because while sharks make for great movies, movies make for lousy public policy. When tragic shark bite incidents occur, there is a classic Jaws-esque analogy just waiting to be made. And sometimes the media circus turns into policy.

I recently wrote an article called “The Jaws Effect” for the Australian Journal of Political Science comparing policymaking in Western Australia and the movie Jaws. While, we see some of these comparisons in real-time the reason it is important to study this formally is because these moments can tell us about the tensions between politicians and scientists that lead to myth-based policies.

I argue that politicians rely on Jaws as a well-known historical analogy in their policy discourse to overwhelm scientists and scientific narratives so that Government can control the policy process. This is a not a benign process but one that rewards some and punishes others. They do this because of pressures around time, governance, and solutions.

Elected officials can feel the pressure from these often-emotional events and want to convey meaning to the public about these community tragedies. They are looking for ‘hard analogies’ to cling onto – quickly. For scientists, it is likely that more time, more data, and more resources are necessary to provide any reasonable information. Understanding the totality of variables related to a shark bite and then narrowing those down takes time. However, more time opens political actors up to more vulnerability so well known movie myths are expedient and politically valuable.

Secondly, there is a tension because scientists might conclude that this was an accident and no one is to blame. After taking the time to look at an incident, they may argue that nothing can be done; that fish are just fish. Importantly, if neither the shark nor beachgoers are to blame, then it is possible that the Government will be blamed. And with the added time, media attention, and potential for opponents this open story line could pose a threat to the Government. Especially, if it was seen as negligent. As a result, movies like Jaws that identify “rogue” sharks provide policy value because they give a clear target of blame and responsibility: the shark.

Thirdly, there is a tension between scientists and the Government over solutions. Shark bites are rare and infrequent statistical events. This means that solving something that is probable not to occur most of the time is incredibly difficult. Telling this to the public may be politically unpopular and scientists may be put under pressure to devise some way to “control” sharks as a reasonable answer. Because the events are infrequent, a response may even look like it works at preventing bites because another may not happen for years or decades. This turns the response into an international success to be modeled. In this case, if “the shark” is the problem, killing the shark is the response and shark bites stop. Then this is seen as a solution. This again mirrors Jaws.

Yet, this type of policymaking is degenerative and undermines the relationship between the State and scientists. It is not based on science, it is not honest with the public, and it does nothing to seriously reduce the risk of a shark bite. Moreover, this style of politics puts scientists in a terrible position, especially when they work for state authorities that govern their resources across a range of projects. However, there are striking examples of scientists introducing a new storyline; taking a stand on these issues to write a new part to the movie. This is the part where the scientists fight back.

As a political scientist, I look at the actions of shark scientists as a movement in four categories. First, we have coordinated scientific shark groups, and two have stepped out on the issue. In 2014 in Australia, the Oceania Chondrichthyans Society (OCS) sent in a formal submission to the Western Australian (WA) Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) against an extension of their drum line policy to cull sharks.  And in 2013, the American Elasmobranch Society (AES) approved a resolution recommending changes to the way the media reports on human-shark interactions.

Secondly, we have aligned but uncoordinated groups of scientists. This includes, a petition from more than 100 scientists in 2013 to the WA Government against a shark culland again more than 300 scientists signing a joint statement to the WA EPA in 2014 against drumlines.

These collective groups are the lifeblood of any continuing battle between movie-myth politics and evidence-based science. The public recognizes the power of scientists in groups and Governments know they face political dangers in opposing or disputing scientific consensus. Thirdly, there is an increase in conservation science non-profit organizations groups such as the Save Our Seas Foundation, Support Our Sharks, Humane Society International, NoSharkCull and others that have risen up as popular opponents of public policies against sharks. Together, these groups organized the largest public protests against shark culling policies in world history. The vital role these non-profits play in public education and political organizing cannot be understated.

Lastly, there are science’s policy entrepreneurs. Theses are the individual actors who in many cases launch these groups or efforts and carry the heaviest load. The tireless work of Sylvia Earle, Sarah Fowler, Bob Hueter, Larry Stevens, and Chris Lowe is much of the foundation that inspires the efforts to continue building coalitions of organizations and groups that make the link between the social and the scientific even stronger. In this group I would include people like Sonya Fordham, Barry Bruce, Jessica Meuwig, Ryan Kempster, David Shiffman, Matt Rand, Claudette Rechtorik, Alison Kock, Daryl McPhee, Colin Simpfendorfer and many others. But it is impossible and foolhardy to try and include everyone.

For me, while Jaws may have peaked my interest, these people are the stars of the movies that keep me watching. And the issues I have noted are the ones that keep me engaged. There are serious questions for natural scientists and social scientists about politics, film and sharks. Movies make fiction seem plausible and the understanding of complex science seem simple. The important lesson from all of this is that because of the hard work of multiple organizations, groups, and individuals the script is unwritten to the sequel of the future between humans and sharks.