‘What’s That Noshin’ On My Laig?’
According to a study published in Nature last month, oceanic shark numbers have declined by 70 per cent since 1970. Three-quarters of ocean-going shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. Yet we are still more likely to feel that sharks are a threat to us than the other way round. Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws – both symptom and cause of that feeling – was published 46 years ago, in February 1974. Production of the movie version began that summer, filmed in the village of Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard. A few years ago I went for a swim at the beach there. I had never considered myself afraid of sharks. But with every stroke I glanced backwards over my shoulder towards the open water.
A novel built around an ominous and supernaturally invincible sea creature, hell-bent on violence: Benchley borrowed a lot from Melville. The similarity was noted by early reviewers. One remarked that the ‘crusty, loner, fated fisherman’, Quint, who drowns at the novel’s end, dragged down into the sea by the shark, was ‘oddly’ not called Ahab. Another, less complimentary, called the finale ‘a bath tub version’ of Moby-Dick. Something they both missed is that the two novels don’t just share these plot elements, but also a portrayal of sharks.
Sharks are mentioned around sixty times in Moby-Dick (compared to more than 1600 occurrences of ‘whale’ and related words). What the white whale represents is a leviathan of a question, but there is no doubt about what sharks meant for Melville: they were the embodiment of unthinking natural evil.
Ishmael speaks of the ‘accursed shark’, the ‘insatiate shark’. Sharks are ‘ravening’, ‘unpitying’, ‘death-devouring’, with ‘jewel-hilted’ mouths full of ‘crunching teeth’. It is the ‘dreaded jaws’ of sharks that repeatedly attract his attention. There’s an apocryphal tale that Jaws only got its title twenty minutes before it was printed – Benchley later recalled more than a hundred discarded titles, including ‘What’s That Noshin’ On My Laig?’ – but in retrospect, it’s telling that it picks out what horrified Melville about sharks too. The threatening ambiguity of Jaws doesn’t translate well: the French version opts for a poetic variation (Les Dents de la mer) but most foreign publishers decided to go literal (‘the shark’: Lo squalo, Tiburón, Der weiße Hai).
The ability of the ocean to summon forth ‘incalculable hosts of sharks’ with infinite appetites is part of its terror. Ishmael describes the way sharks, attracted by the blood oozing from dead whales lashed to the sides of whaling ships, would feast on the carcasses with ‘wondrous voracity’. As writhing sharks devour a sperm whale carcass in Chapter 66 (‘The Shark Massacre’), Ishmael says that an onlooker would think ‘the whole round sea was one huge cheese, and those sharks the maggots in it’.
For all that Melville and Benchley wrote of the appetites of sharks, it is human appetites that are causing their decline. Using historical catch data, the Nature study shows there has been an eighteen-fold increase in fishing pressure on sharks since 1970; we are devouring the sharks, not the other way around. More fishing with long lines and seine nets, together with more demand for shark meat, is to blame. The growth in our collective appetite is relatively recent: the authors of the study hypothesise that a step-change in fishing pressure in 1990 coincided with an increased demand for shark fins.
Sharks do not make good victims. They are apex predators, for eons eating everything else with impunity. It’s hard to shake the feeling that in some sense they deserve to be eaten. But their invulnerability in the ocean is part of their fragility. As the FAO noted in 1990, sharks are characterised by ‘slow growth rates, low fecundity potential, relatively late sexual maturation’ and ‘long life spans’. In ecological terms, they are strong ‘K-strategists’, growing large and prioritising few offspring because they are at the top of a stable food-chain. This has been a winning evolutionary strategy for millions of years, but makes them acutely vulnerable to overfishing. Unlike ‘r-strategists’, species that reproduce quickly and plentifully, K-strategists take their time. If many individuals are removed before reproducing, population decline can be swift – even terminal.
After writing Jaws, Benchley became an ocean conservationist. He came to regret his role in making the great white shark one of cinema’s greatest villains. In one interview he recalled that ‘we all thought’ the sea ‘was invulnerable, it was eternal. There was nothing man could do to destroy it, or even to damage it, we thought all fish populations would come back.’ Some may not.
In the Epilogue to Moby-Dick, Ishmael survives the wreck of the Pequod, buoyed up by Queequeg’s coffin. The sea is now ‘soft and dirgelike’ rather than malevolent. And the last creature he encounters in the water is not a whale but a shark. For the first time in the novel the jaws are closed: ‘The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths.’