JawsFest Takes Aim at Sharks - To Save Them

When Peter Benchley asked his wife what she wanted to do for their 40th wedding anniversary, the answer was obvious: Dive with great white sharks.

"It was just the most marvelous trip," Wendy Benchley said about the 2004 vacation to Guadalupe Island off Baja California, where she remembered seeing several large, female white sharks glide by the dive cage.

Eight years later and 37 years after her late husband's famous book was remade into the blockbuster movie "Jaws," Benchley is still fascinated by sharks and is working to help protect them.

She is chairwoman of Shark Savers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of sharks. The group, formed by divers in 2007, focuses on stopping the practice of harvesting fins from sharks for shark fin soup, a delicacy in China.

This week, Benchley and Shark Savers are on Martha's Vineyard to help educate the public about sharks during the JawsFest tribute to the movie.

"It's wonderful for Peter's legacy to have 'Jaws' as a learning tool and teaching moment, as well as a thrilling moment," she said about the evolution of attitudes toward sharks since the movie was first released.

Only a few years after "Jaws" was published in 1974, her husband said he wouldn't have written the same book again, Benchley said.

"Our knowledge about the ocean and about sharks changed dramatically," she said, adding that it became quickly apparent sharks were being overfished.

Shark fishing tournaments in which the animals are killed, including the annual one on Martha's Vineyard, can further damage already fragile shark populations, Benchley said, adding that she has seen kill tournaments in other places successfully transition to catch-and-release.

"To me, that's what I hope the tournament on Martha's Vineyard becomes," she said.

The trade in shark fins is the leading cause for the decline of shark populations globally, Samantha Whitcraft, Shark Savers director of programs and a conservation biologist, said.

As many as 74 million sharks are killed for their fins each year, Benchley said.

Opponents highlight the cruel practice of cutting off the fins of sharks and then dumping the fish back into the water alive, leaving them to either be eaten or suffocate on the ocean floor because they can't swim.

The United States is among the top 10 countries in the world exporting shark fins to Asia, Whitcraft said.

The effort to ban the trade has to be undertaken state by state, she said. It is banned already in several states, including Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington.

Because of the booming middle class in China and other Asian countries, the consumption of shark fin soup is up, she said. "It's like we would have champagne to celebrate official banquets, weddings," she said.

The top 14 shark species targeted for their fins are all listed as threatened or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Whitcraft said. IUCN is a global environmental organization that publishes a list of threatened species.

But only white sharks, basking sharks and whale sharks are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a treaty on the trade of endangered or threatened species overseen by the United Nations.

On the one hand, the movie "Jaws" brought sharks — and the fear of them — into the national consciousness, she said.

But the movie also fed a fascination with sharks and encouraged some — such as Whitcraft — to study them, she said. "Hooper is my hero," she said about the scientist character played by Richard Dreyfuss in the movie. "There are so many people in this field who will point to 'Jaws' and say, 'Yep, that's where I fell in love with sharks.'"

During the first JawsFest in 2005, Peter Benchley helped educate organizers about the plight of sharks, event producer Susan Sigel Goldsmith said.

Wendy Benchley's relationship with Shark Savers made for a natural fit between the two organizations, Sigel Goldsmith said.

Money raised from donations as well as a percentage of sales at certain businesses and sales of shark artwork will go toward Shark Savers and other conservation efforts, she said.

Sigel Goldsmith said she didn't know how much money this year's JawsFest might raise.

In 2010, Shark Savers received about $340,000 from various sources and spent nearly $200,000, according to tax documents.

The primarily volunteer-based organization ended that year with $241,388 in net assets, according to the documents.

Both Whitcraft and Benchley said the recent return of great white sharks to the waters off Cape Cod is an exciting development. State officials have confirmed a Denver man who suffered injuries to his legs while swimming July 30 off Truro was bitten by a white shark.

"It's going to be an interesting time, and of course, it's going to be difficult," Benchley said. "The hope is that the bites will be few and far between."

By taking precautions such as not swimming at dawn, dusk or too far out, however, the chances of being bitten by a shark — already slim — can be reduced even further, she said.