By Scott LaFee
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
March 7, 2002
Contrary to popular myth, sharks are not perpetual motion machines. They do not
need to move on to survive.
On the other hand, that's exactly what Peter Benchley is trying to do: Move on.
And that turns out to be a good thing for sharks.
Benchley is the author of "Jaws," the 1973 novel in which a notorious, giant Great
White shark consumes various residents of Amity, a fictitious New England resort
town, before finally being blown up by the book's heroes.
"Jaws" was Benchley's first novel. It made him unexpectedly rich and famous. The
1975 movie made him even more so.
"If I won the Nobel Prize and cured cancer, I'd still be remembered as the guy who
wrote 'Jaws,' " Benchley says, smiling.
He's not complaining, mind you. "Jaws" launched a career that has involved
dozens of television specials and writing assignments concerning not just sharks
but oceans in general. He says it's been an education.
"When I wrote 'Jaws,' I really didn't know that much about sharks," he says.
"There wasn't a lot of material about them. Most of it was scientific papers. And I
was basically environmentally unconscious."
But Benchley says he's awake now, and he's trying to stir others. The oceans, he
asserts, are dying, victimized by human overfishing on a global scale.
"Everywhere I go, marine ecologies are hurting," Benchley says. "Fish are smaller,
in size and in numbers. We're eating fish now that we once considered trash fish
because we've eaten everything else. When those are gone, we'll eat something
Benchley was in San Diego this week to make that point, and to add his public
support for a proposal to ban fishing and other environmentally harmful activities
from significant portions of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
The idea is a much-reduced alternative to a state Department of Fish and Game
proposal last year to establish 12 new marine sanctuaries with no-take zones off
the California coast. A public hearing on the subject has been scheduled by the
California Fish and Game Commission for 10 a.m. today at Hubbs Sea World
Research Institute on Mission Bay.
"It's really a pretty weak plan, but one of the alternatives, I hear, is to not do
anything," said Benchley. "And that's unacceptable, thank you very much."
Weak or not, the proposed Channel Island marine protected area faces stiff
resistance from commercial and private fishing groups. They contend that a fishing
ban is overzealous and unsupported by scientific research.
"That's what people always say. It's an easy answer," scoffs Benchley. "But how
much proof do they want? All they have to do is look at what's happening to
"I've been to the Galapagos, which is supposed to be a great natural preserve, and
fishermen take what they want there because there's nobody to stop them. I've
gone swimming off Costa Rica, where the sea bottom is littered with shark corpses,
their fins cut off for soup.
"It has gotten to the point where the Spanish are harvesting 15-pound swordfish.
A swordfish, which can grow to more than 1,000 pounds, has to be at least 150
pounds before they even begin reproducing."
Sharks, too, face increased dangers. They are extensively hunted for meat, medical
products and their fins, which are considered a delicacy in some Asian countries.
Millions more are inadvertently killed each year in commercial nets and caught on
long-lines baited for other species.
Four species are considered to be in particular danger: the dusky, the spiny
dogfish, the basking and the white. The latter, of course, is the species made
infamous by "Jaws."
Knowing what he knows now about sharks, Benchley says he wouldn't write such
a book today. Great whites, he says, rarely attack people, and when they do, it's
usually a mistake.
"Time magazine declared last summer to be the 'Summer of the Shark' because it
seemed like there was this huge increase in unprovoked shark attacks," Benchley
says. "But there wasn't. In fact, the number was lower than in 2000 (76 compared
Benchley blames such media hype and the resulting furor upon persistent shark
myths, lots of misinformation and much-publicized events, such as the July 6, 2001,
incident in which 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast of Florida was attacked by a 7-foot
bull shark. The shark bit Arbogast's arm off, but the arm was retrieved and
surgically reattached. The boy survived; the shark did not.
"Jaws" may have been the first to tap into a deep public fear and loathing of
sharks, but Benchley says sharks have always suffered from a bad reputation.
"They're the only free-roaming predator in the world that, if we wander into their
environment, we seriously worry about them eating us," he says.
Benchley says he's not sorry he wrote "Jaws."
"I still get thousands of letters each year about the book, and a lot of them are from
people, especially kids, who are not afraid of sharks. Instead, they're fascinated.
They want to know more. That makes me feel good."
He'll feel even better if he can help ensure that future generations get to see the
real thing in the wild, presumably with both parties swimming away unharmed.