Presidents have long stoked fears about sharks to show toughness


As eager viewers wrap up this year’s Shark Week, it’s time to reassess the power of sharks in American politics. Several reports of shark bites near Fire Island in New York City prompted city officials to close Rockaway Beach over fears of future damage sharks could cause. And yet, statistics show that the likelihood of being bitten by a shark and dying is very, very low: one in over 3.7 million.

Despite the rarity of a shark attack, sharks have long been villains in American society, folklore and, yes, presidential politics. In fact, Commanders-in-Chief have battled sharks in different ways over the years, often using the fish as a substitute to assuage other public fears and anxieties.

Sharks have long fascinated presidents. In 1751, for example, George Washington wrote about sharks in his diary while sailing to Barbados, the only time he left the North American continent. He wrote: “Shark; this fish with its particularly shaped jaw and teeth is also called dogfish. Some species are harmless to humans, but others are particularly fierce and dangerous.

Other presidents have used the fish to build a cult of masculinity around them and strengthen the executive office. The hyper-masculine image associated with Theodore Roosevelt and the “Roughriders” during the Spanish-American War, for example, was largely attributed to their ability to ride horses through swamps and overcome any environment they were in. immersed. To this end, Roosevelt wrote, “If attacked by a man-eating shark, [I] would be far more interested in dodging or fending off the attack than determining the shark’s precise specific relationships.

But it was Woodrow Wilson who began crafting public policy on sharks to become the first “tough on sharks” president. This followed four fatal shark attacks on the New Jersey interior coast during the first 12 days of July 1916. The attacks were believed to be the work of a single “man-eating” shark. The incidents were placed on the agenda of Wilson’s war cabinet, and Coast Guard ships were deployed to help round up and kill the villainous sharks. A shark was actually found and killed with remains still in its stomach. The threat was addressed through a whole-of-government approach aimed at killing a perceived killer shark.

Wilson learned that sharks make good political targets and a way to show presidents taking action to help the American people. This crisis management was designed to show the executive protection of the people – namely the wealthy donors who lived in the offshore resorts – during a time of need.

It also made for a good story, one that audiences eagerly consumed. Horace Mazet published several best-selling books about bloodthirsty sharks in the 1930s, including “Shark! Shark! : The thirty-year odyssey of a shark hunting pioneer. Mazet helped popularize the idea that sharks catch “shark rage,” the precursor to the rogue shark theory on which the popular 1975 film “Jaws” is based.

Based on this tradition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who often tried to control public perceptions of his physical health as he lived with the effects of polio, told the American press how he fought a 235 pound shark for 90 minutes before landing. the fish in 1938. The photo of the president sitting next to a large hanging shark was released to the public by the White House.

John F. Kennedy also used sharks to reinforce his masculine persona, such as when he recounted the heroic story of how he helped rescue other crew members aboard a patrol torpedo boat that had been rammed by the Japanese during World War II. His account of that moment in 1943 included how he had to swim in shark-infested waters.

Such stories may have bolstered the political image of presidents as strong and fearless leaders, but they also reinforced the idea that sharks were a real threat. In 1969, a few years before Richard M. Nixon fell from Watergate, taxpayers paid to protect the president from sharks at his private beach house in Florida. Nixon had the Secret Service install shark netting around his home during his presidency following sightings of sharks in the waters off Key Biscayne. According to a government report, “the Navy installed and maintained at the request of the Secret Service a shark net in Biscayne Bay to protect the President when he bathed there.”

The horror tale “Jaws” helped sway the general public and government about the “dangers” posed by sharks. After the film’s release, the federal government began to view sharks more as “lost fish”, lowering their status in fishing regulatory protections, while many local jurisdictions regularly held weekend shark derbies. where sharks were slaughtered.

A change, however, was on the horizon, as sharks received new, perhaps more sympathetic, treatments in the decades to come. For example, the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week was established in 1988 and began gaining mainstream traction in the 1990s. In 1994, California even added protections against fishing or taking great white sharks. in its waters.

Several American presidents have started using sharks to create a story of hope for the public. Presidents George HW Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each established shark sanctuaries that have helped preserve endangered species. In 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noted that “President [H.W.] Bush had the distinction of having the most designated national marine sanctuaries during any presidential administration, totaling six.

A changing political climate has helped protect sharks, and public concern surrounding shark “attacks” appears to be diminishing. The work of activists and scientists has demonstrated that shark bites are often the result of the shark mistaking a human for one of its natural prey. Thus, a new era in human-shark relations is upon us, with the arrival of the “Save the Shark” movement.

Statistics indicate that public perceptions are indeed changing when it comes to sharks. In the 2015 and 2016 polls, 66% of people agreed that the term “shark attack” was too sensational. This makes sense given additional data that only 38% of reported shark attacks resulted in injury.

And yet, the idea of ​​the shark as a villain has also persisted in the American political imagination. Then-president Donald Trump declared an informal war on sharks in 2018. “I’m not a big fan of sharks either. I don’t know, how many votes will I lose? he said. Noting that some people had asked him to contribute to funds dedicated to saving sharks, he claimed to have responded with, “No, thank you. I have other things I can contribute to.

The history of sharks and the US presidency clearly shows that fish have served as a powerful tool in shaping public perceptions. Indeed, sharks have long been used as a political foil, creating a feeding frenzy, in which presidents surround and attack sharks to create a moment of opportunity for themselves and their agendas.

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