Although sharks certainly have a fearsome reputation nowadays, incredibly, "at the turn of the 20th century, there was this perception that sharks had never attacked a human being," said George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research in Gainesville. "There was even a reward offered if someone could prove they were bitten by a shark — money that was never collected."
That began to change when a deadly rampage by a rogue great white shark on swimmers along the New Jersey shoreline and in a nearby creek during the summer of 1916 — attacks that helped inspire "Jaws," Burgess noted.
"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," he explained. "So there was this stereotype of sharks being man-eaters that had to be looked out for."
The film's key mistake was portraying great white sharks as vengeful predators that could remember specific human beings and go after them to settle a grudge.
"The movie certainly gave sharks too much of an ability to engage in revenge," Burgess said.
As a consequence of this depiction of sharks as monsters bent on massacring swimmers and boaters in "Jaws," dozens of shark fishing tournaments popped up. "A collective testosterone rush certainly swept through the East Coast of the U.S.," Burgess said. "It was good blue-collar fishing. You didn't have to have a fancy boat or gear — an average Joe could catch big fish, and there was no remorse, since there was this mindset that they were man-killers."
This proved to be part of a growing shark-hunting trend that dramatically reduced nearly all shark species over the following decades, Burgess said. In the waters off the U.S. eastern seaboard, populations of many species of sharks have dropped by 50 percent and some have fallen by as much as 90 percent.