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Why Jaws Made Me Care About Sharks

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Less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the coast of Florida, Bimini lies low and flat on the horizon. The several islands that make up this Bahamian island chain are studded with palm trees, surrounded by sandy beaches and neatly laid out resort hotels, restaurants and marinas. A notable tourist destination for big-game fishing, this place is famous for once being home to Ernest Hemingway -- and it is here that I recently found myself on both a personal and professional odyssey.

Personal, because I was there with my dear friend Wendy Benchley, together to honor her late husband and my best friend, Peter. Professional, because we were there with a Discovery Channel film crew making a documentary on how the movie Jaws -- based on Peter's book of the same name -- changed the world. The special airs tonight as part of Shark Week -- which itself probably wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for Jaws.

I first met Peter and Wendy about 32 years ago in Bermuda, under the guidance of a mentor we all shared -- the great ocean explorer Teddy Tucker. We immediately kicked off a lifelong friendship based on the solid foundation of our passion for the ocean: they just off the fiery heels of Jaws mania, and me with the much lower profile of an oceanographer beginning his career.

At first we spent our time together studying whales, exploring the deep sea, night-diving on seamounts, finding shipwrecks, and all manner and form of exploring the oceans, which make up over 70 percent of the Earth's surface and 95 percent of the biosphere.

But soon we began to notice fewer fish, bleached corals, pollution and many other symptoms that told us our beloved ocean was dying. The three of us then began focusing our time and careers on ocean conservation. Peter and Wendy began full-time advocacy work, making good use of their public names. I worked the NGO world, first at the New England Aquarium, but eventually running the global marine program at Conservation International, which works across borders in collaborative shark-tagging and protection projects in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean in the Bird's Head Seascape in Indonesia.

And now here we were in Bimini -- site of some of the world's most cutting-edge shark research -- to discuss the legacy of Jaws. It has always been my view that while this story undoubtedly scared many people, it also had a positive impact by getting the oceans in people's minds. It also introduced the world to a charismatic oceanographer figure in the character of Matt Hooper. He was funny, smart, a diver and totally engaged with the oceans; that character helped inspire the careers of myself and other young aspiring oceanographers.

I am hard pressed to meet a colleague that has not been affected by this film. In addition, the public fascination with sharks spurred by Jaws helped lead to a dramatic uptick in shark research that has shaped how we understand the ocean today.

As Wendy and I swam with these magnificent animals and I watched their interactions with the other reef residents, I saw for myself just how essential they are to all life in the sea and all life on Earth. Their removal from an ecosystem can have devastating effects upon the species below, as sharks help to keep these marine systems in balance. The presence of apex predators can lead to greater species diversity and density; in essence, sharks are critical to sustain the fisheries on which we depend.

Yet despite their importance, around 100 million sharks are killed each year -- many to meet the demand for shark fin soup, a cultural delicacy in many Asian countries that often costs as much as $100 per bowl. In addition, sharks are often caught as accidental "bycatch" by commercial fishing nets which are set to catch other species -- an extremely wasteful practice.

Today, almost 40 years after the release of biggest shark film of all time, the fate of the world's sharks hangs in the balance. If we are to have any chance at reversing the depletion of these crucial species, we need to both reduce the demand for shark-related products and to work harder to develop and manage improved commercial fishing techniques. It won't be easy, but as I see global discussions on ocean health gain traction, I'm optimistic that we are beginning to move the needle in the right direction.

"How 'Jaws' Changed the World" airs Tuesday, 8/14 at 9 p.m. EST.

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