As Jaws marks its 50th anniversary—an astonishing milestone—I find myself reflecting on what my late husband, Peter Benchley, would have thought about the profound change in our understanding of sharks since he wrote his bestseller. Today, these once-maligned creatures are seen as majestic guardians of our oceans.

Jaws did more than entertain; it tapped into our innate need to comprehend and conquer our fears. As the late E.O. Wilson, Harvard’s renowned entomologist and naturalist, observed, “We are not afraid of predators; we’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them because fascination creates preparedness and survival. In a deeply tribal way, we love our monsters.”

Jaws exemplifies this insight, initially sparking shark-killing tournaments yet eventually leading us to the realization that the real peril lies in global overfishing and the abhorrent practice of shark finning, which claims over 100 million sharks annually. Sharks have been around for 450 million years, more than 1,500 times as long as homo sapiens, and, as apex predators, they play a vital role in ensuring the health of our oceans.

Historically, creatures like whales and wolves evoked similar fears, but concerted conservation efforts have transformed them into symbols of our dedication to protecting the planet. Now, it is the sharks’ turn.

When Peter penned Jaws in the early 1970s, shark science was in its infancy. The movie’s subsequent blockbuster success, propelled by Steven Spielberg’s genius, triggered thousands of letters to Peter telling him how Jaws inspired them to pursue careers in marine science, shark studies, and advocacy for coastal and coral reef protection.

Peter’s and my commitment to marine conservation led us to collaborate with respected nonprofit and academic organizations and participate in dozens of shark and ocean expeditions with National Geographic. We worked hard to educate the world about the threats of overfishing and finning. That’s when a small nonprofit, WildAid, working in the Galapagos and China, addressing both sides of the problem—reducing consumer demand for shark fin soup and protecting sharks in their habitat—caught our attention. Peter worked on WildAid’s shark demand reduction campaign in Asia in the early 2000s, and I joined the board in 2012.

Wendy Benchley (left), Peter Benchley (center), and their son Clayton on the set of Jaws with actor Roy Scheider (right).
Wendy Benchley (left), Peter Benchley (center), and their son Clayton on the set of Jaws with actor Roy Scheider (right).

Over the past 20 years, powerful campaigns to change the social acceptability of consuming shark fin soup and educating people about the brutal reality behind shark finning have significantly reduced demand for shark fins in China. Nevertheless, the work is far from over, with one recent study indicating that shark mortality rates continue to rise due to a new and expanding market for shark meat.

When it comes to protecting sharks in their habitat, it’s encouraging to see that there has been an uptick in establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) over the past ten years. However, according to the World Database on Protected Areas, only 3 percent of MPAs are fully or highly protected, and 8.2 percent are designated as partially protected. Most are protected in name only—what I call paper parks. In the next five years, we need a herculean effort to create more MPAs to meet a global goal of protecting 30 percent of the ocean by 2030, but we also need to strengthen the enforcement and regulation of all MPAs. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates international trade in many shark species. However, this only helps sharks if countries vigorously enforce its regulations. We must aggressively push for the inclusion of effective enforcement of MPAs and sustainable fisheries around the globe.

I urge the ocean community to unite in a powerful, coordinated campaign to protect sharks. We need to continue efforts to end the consumption of shark products, enforce existing shark protections, push for stricter limits on shark fishing, and boldly encourage the creation of more MPAs. Armed with knowledge, expertise, and better regulations, we can mobilize millions around the globe to ensure a harmonious coexistence with these magnificent creatures and secure a lasting legacy of thriving seas.

By Wendy Benchley, Shark and Ocean Conservationist & Marine Policy Advocate

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About WildAid

WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to protect wildlife from illegal trade and other imminent threats. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $308 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too. 

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