If Chief Brody and Quint were cioppino lovers, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so quick to jam a pressurized air tank into a great white’s mouth. (If you haven’t seen the 1975 classic, Jaws, our apologies for spoiling the ending.)

Scientists recently found that overfishing of predatory sharks like the great white, bull, dusky and hammerhead in the Atlantic Ocean caused a huge decline in bay scallops, a shellfish beloved by so many seafood connoisseurs. A study published yesterday in the journal Science shows that predatory sharks declined by about 99 percent between 1970 and 2005, causing a population boom in rays and skates, the sharks’ typical entrees. Since rays and skates feed on seagrass bed-dwelling creatures, bay scallop populations have been decimated.

From a Reuters article:

“With fewer sharks around, the species they prey upon—like cownose rays—have increased in numbers, and in turn, hordes of cownose rays dining on bay scallops have wiped the scallops out,” said study co-author Julia Baum of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Large sharks first came under attack about 25 years ago when fishing groups sought a replacement for cod fishing.  Now, shark dishes frequently show up on restaurant menus throughout the world, with an especially high demand in Asia.  Additionally, many sharks are killed in swordfish nets.

And it’s not just scallops that will suffer from the shark decline:

“We know that once they eat the things that are the most easy, evident and obvious to get, which are those on the surface of the bottom like a scallop and an oyster, they turn to digging in the bottom to get buried shellfish,” co-author Charles “Pete” Peterson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said by telephone.

Since scallop populations are all but demolished in North Carolina’s bay scallop fishery, the feeding frenzy will likely affect shrimp, crabs and young grouper and snapper, too. At one point in Jaws, Matt Hooper, the shark expert played by a shaggy-bearded Richard Dreyfuss, offers his opinion to the mayor about dealing with the town’s shark attack problem.  “I think that I am familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and bites you on the ass,” he says.  While we realize that Jaws is just a horror movie (and quite a funny one at that), here’s hoping Hooper’s poignant observation won’t ring true in the case of shark overfishing.   

Story by Sarah Parsons. This article originally appeared in Plenty in March 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Shark attack
Overfishing of predatory sharks is taking a toll on shellfish populations.