Great white shark and diver, Gansbaai, Western Cape, South Africa. Photo © Fiona Ayerst

Can Sharks Survive Humans?

A century after the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks, sharks are more threatened than ever—by us.

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Jul 1 2016, 3:00pm

Great white shark and diver, Gansbaai, Western Cape, South Africa. Photo © Fiona Ayerst

A century after the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks, sharks are more threatened than ever—by us.

It was a punishingly hot summer on the Jersey Shore. People flocked to the coast in droves seeking relief in the cool ocean waters. Adding to their numbers were families outrunning one of the worst polio outbreaks in history, sweeping through the nation on the crest of the sweltering heat wave. As the Fourth of July weekend approached, waterfront resorts bustled with activity and beachgoers like Charles Epting Vansant ventured into the Atlantic for a taste of the sea.

Little did they know, the sea would taste them back.

Vansant was a likable young man of 23, gifted at sports and academics. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, and worked there as a broker. But on the afternoon of Saturday, July 1, 1916, he had just arrived at the Engleside Hotel, a luxury resort in Beach Haven, New Jersey, to vacation with his family over the holiday weekend.

Eager to get a dip in before everyone convened for dinner, Vansant changed into his swim gear and plunged into the water. A playful Chesapeake Bay retriever accompanied him as he swam, all under the watchful eyes of the lifeguard on duty, Alexander Ott, a former member of the US Olympic swim team.

Print depiction of the Engleside Hotel, circa 1930-1945. Image: Boston Public Library

All of a sudden, something spooked the dog into booking it for dry land. Vansant followed close behind, unaware that he was also being tailed. By the time beachgoers caught sight of the sleek dorsal fin bisecting the water, it was too late. All Vansant could do was cry out in horror as the shark bit down on his legs.

Ott rushed out to rescue Vansant, but according to eyewitness reports, the shark held tight even as the lifeguard struggled to pull the injured swimmer to safety. It wasn't until onlookers formed a human chain to support Ott that Vansant was finally freed and hauled to shore. By that time, the shark had made off with most of the flesh from his left thigh. Vansant bled to death shortly afterwards at 6:45 PM. He was the first casualty of the infamous Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916.

***

Today marks the centennial of this inaugural life claimed by the "Jersey man-eater," as newspapers came to call the mysterious shark—or multiple sharks—that sparked mass panic on the American eastern seaboard in July 1916.

Buoyed by the advent of radio newscasts, telephone communication, and widespread access to print news, these encounters were immortalized by one of the most iconic media feeding frenzies of the 20th century. The attacks grabbed front page headlines around the world, stoking terror among beachgoers, along with a frantic reevaluation of the human relationship to sharks.

A feature from the New York Sun, dated July 16, 1916, with the headline "Tigers of the Sea: All Theories of Scientists Upset by Invasion of Local Waters by Man Eaters." Image: The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation

Amid the hysteria, few recognized that this shift in balance had more to do with evolving human behaviors than some mythically ravenous shark. Heading out for a beach weekend is standard vacation fare now, but 100 years ago, ocean recreation was just beginning to catch on as a major leisure activity for the American public. Unprecedented crowds were wading into Jersey's coastal waters, with precious little understanding of the wilderness they had entered.

"The fact that there were five shark attacks probably has much less to do with some rogue shark that suddenly got mean and spiteful and wanted to start ripping legs off of people in New Jersey than it does with the fact that there were a whole lot of people on the coast at that time," Douglas McCauley, an ocean ecologist based at UC Santa Barbara, told me.

Predictably, though, the "monster shark" treatment eclipsed the subtler anthropogenic explanation. Once admired for their streamlined predatory prowess, battle-tested by over 420 million years of evolution, sharks were suddenly demonized, hated, and hunted. The group's lush diversity, from the aptly named pocket shark to the colossal whale shark, was reduced to one stereotype: the crazed killer with a taste for human flesh.

The more relevant and pressing reality is that sharks die at the hands of humans in astronomically higher numbers than the few humans who die in the jaws of sharks.

Decades later, this fearsome reputation spawned by the attacks was reinforced by the 1974 publication of Peter Benchley's bestselling novel Jaws, then fully cemented by Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster film adaptation.

People would never see sharks the same way again. Their portrayal as insensate monsters has metastasized so far and wide that it has spawned an entire genre of parody movies built on devising absurdist means for sharks to extend their people-eating reach. The Shallows, a thriller released just last week, openly bills itself as "Jaws for a new generation," much to the dismay of shark advocates. Even non-fiction portrayals of sharks often take the "man-eater" bait: Discovery Channel's annual "Shark Week" has become a pop culture juggernaut partially because of its controversial tendency to play up shark aggressiveness for ratings.

It's true that some shark species occasionally attack and kill humans. It's also true that these maulings have an eerily captivating quality that seems singular in the animal kingdom. The shark's otherworldly environment, sleek torpedo-like frame, and the sheer force with which so many of them strike all combine to create the ultimate human nightmare. Most predators have to be persistent and determined to bring down their prey, but sharks can casually kill humans by accident with one bite.

That said, the dominance of this one brutal image of these complex keystone animals has long since, well, jumped the shark. The more relevant and pressing reality is that sharks die at the hands of humans in astronomically higher numbers than the few humans who die in the jaws of sharks. While around six people are killed by sharks every year, humans are responsible for at least 100 million shark deaths annually. That amounts to roughly 11,000 sharks killed every hour.

"If you ask most scientists what is the most important thing going on with sharks, they are not going to say shark attacks," said George Burgess, a world-renowned shark expert at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "They are going to say the decline in population in sharks around the world. That is motivating almost all of us to do our science, because we are seeing many of them disappearing."

Estimated size of the extinct Megalodon, at the upper limit. Image: Scarlet23/Wikimedia Commons

It seems absurd for an upstart species like humanity to have such a stranglehold on the future of legacy players like sharks. Debuting on the oceanic scene nearly half a billion years ago, sharks were around long before our own mammalian ancestors got their start. Some of their lineages have since faded away, including the intimidating 60-foot-long Megalodon. But at least 440 species of shark have pulled through to the 21st century; the genetic torchbearers of one of Earth's most ancient and spectacular families. Eons have passed and catastrophes have struck, but sharks have kept on swimming.

These surviving sharks can detect electric fields. Some are bioluminescent. Some accidentally solve optimization problems. One can even walk on land. We have barely scratched the surface of their intricate anatomy, behavior, and evolutionary history, though we do know that sharks have successfully weathered all five known mass extinction events, from the Great Dying to the asteroid collision that finished off the non-avian dinosaurs.

The question is: Can sharks survive us?

***

It may seem odd in this post-Sharknado world, but 100 years ago, shark attacks were seen as something of an unsolved nautical mystery.

"Believe it or not, in 1916, there was actually controversy over whether sharks attacked humans," Burgess told me. "This was despite a long history of sharks and humans getting together throughout the world in various places, and no shortage of actual bites that occurred."

As the director of the International Shark Attack File, a comprehensive database of every known shark attack since the 16th century, Burgess is uniquely cognizant that sharks are quite capable of biting humans—though these encounters are extremely rare and are usually "hit and run" attacks in which sharks mistake people for another prey source.

But back in the early 20th century, the notion that sharks could hurt humans was deemed so farfetched that American multimillionaire Hermann Oelrichs offered a $500 reward to anyone who could produce "such proof as a court would accept that in temperate waters even one man, woman, or child, while alive, was ever attacked by a shark," according to Michael Capuzzo's Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $13,000—a hefty sum to bet against shark attacks.

This context helps explain why prominent figures downplayed the dangers of human encounters with sharks following Vansant's death. A Philadelphia Public Ledger article entitled "Bathers Need Have No Fear of Sharks," quoted James M. Meehan, Fish Commissioner of Pennsylvania, offering the following reassurances to beachgoers:

"Despite the death of Charles Vansant and the report of two sharks having been caught in that vicinity recently, I do not believe there is any reason why people should hesitate to go in swimming at the beaches for fear of man-eaters. The information in regard to the sharks is indefinite and I hardly believe that Vansant was bitten by a man-eater."

Experts at the time simply found it inconceivable that sharks could inflict life-threatening wounds on humans. Ichthyologist Henry Weed Fowler, born in 1878, was among them. According to Richard G. Fernicola's Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks, Fowler claimed that "it is beyond the power even of the largest Carcharodon [shark] to sever the leg of an adult man."

This claim was due for a harsh public rebuttal on July 6, 1916.

***

It was a Thursday, and 28-year-old Charles Bruder was headed out for his daily afternoon swim. A native of Switzerland, Bruder was handling the summer rush as the bell captain of the newly built Essex & Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake, New Jersey. Whenever possible, he sent his earnings back to his mother in Lucerne, to support her while his relatives were fighting in World War I.

Print of Essex & Sussex Hotel. Image: Boston Public Library

It was a warm day, and the beach was packed. Bruder swam out beyond the masses to enjoy the solitude of the ocean some 100 meters (328 feet) from shore. He was, however, not so far out that his shrieks could not be heard when the shark made its first strike.

While there is no such thing as a gentle shark attack, Bruder faced a particularly brutal onslaught. According to one account, the water surrounding him became so red that an eyewitness mistook it for the hull of a capsized canoe. By the time the lifeguards had launched a rescue boat to save Bruder, the shark had severed both lower legs from his body, between ankle and knee, and had also bitten deep into his abdomen.

Hundreds of tourists watched in horror from the safety of the beach. Some claimed to see the shark make multiple passes at its victim, even flinging him above the surface, exposing the gruesome injuries. The lifeguards were eventually able to reach Bruder and haul him into the boat, but by that time, the young man was losing disastrous amounts of blood. He died of hemorrhagic shock on the trip back to the beach. According to his rescuers, his last words were "a shark bit me, bit my legs off."

The sight of Bruder's body being unloaded from the boat unleashed chaos on the beach. "Many persons were so overcome with Bruder's death that they had to be assisted to their rooms," the New York Times reported the following morning. "Swimmers hurried out of the water and couldn't be induced to return."

It must have been extremely jarring for witnesses to square the claim that it was "beyond the power of even of the largest [shark] to sever the leg of an adult man," as Fowler reportedly claimed, with twofold evidence to the contrary right before their eyes. The depths of the era's ignorance about the prodigious hunting abilities of sharks had been laid bare and lifeless in the sand.

"It is a really interesting turning point in our history with sharks and our relationship with the oceans, in terms of whether we looked at the oceans with wonder, curiosity, or fear."

This new grisly reputation was actively embraced by the press, generating headlines like "Jagged Stumps of Youth Stain Water Deep Crimson" or, put more bluntly, "Shark Eats Bathers Legs." But it wasn't an invention of the media alone. Many of the leading scientists of the day contributed to sharks' emerging PR problem, including ornithologist Robert Murphy and ichthyologist John Nichols, both based at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In October 1916, the pair published a shocking condemnation of sharks in the Brooklyn Museum Science Bulletin.

"There is something peculiarly sinister in the shark's makeup," wrote Murphy and Nichols. "The sight of his dark, lean fin lazily cutting zig-zags in the surface of some quiet, sparkling summer sea, and then slipping out of sight not to appear again, suggests an evil spirit. His leering, chinless face, his great mouth with its rows of knife-like teeth [...] the relentless fury with which, when his last hour has come, he thrashes on deck and snaps at his enemies; his toughness, his brutal, nerveless vitality and insensibility to physical injury, fail to elicit the admiration one feels for the dashing, brilliant, destructive, gastronomic blue fish, tunny, or salmon."

"It is doubtful," the pair added, "whether there be any creature that the average human being takes more pleasure in destroying."

***

It's hard to imagine any biologist today describing an animal with such inflammatory and anthropocentric language as "sinister," "enemies," or "evil spirit," and it demonstrates how viciously the 1916 attacks warped the popular conception of sharks.

"It is a really interesting turning point in our history with sharks and our relationship with the oceans, in terms of whether we looked at the oceans with wonder, curiosity, or fear," McCauley told me.

"Unfortunately, that was a period when there was a strong push toward fearing the ocean," he said. "It really changed, in a major way, how we think about sharks. It went from simply acknowledging them as just another fish in the ocean to demonizing them as something that might chase us down and vengefully eat us."

Quint's iconic monologue.

What's perhaps most astonishing about these historical snapshots is the cavalier devaluation of sharks as biological entities. This particular brand of negative framing was later reinforced by Quint's iconic Indianapolis speech in Jaws, in which sharks are characterized as having "lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye," and not "seem[ing] to be living." It's as if people perceived sharks as such wholly monstrous others that they could hardly be reconciled as lifeforms at all.

It's not surprising, then, that shark hunts boomed in the wake of the 1916 attacks, and are referenced frequently in articles published around that time. Throughout July 1916, newspapers issued headlines like "Government Aids Fight to Stamp Out Shark Horror," "Shark Hunting Popular Sport," and "War on Sharks."

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on shark hunts. Image: The Philadelphia Inquirer

Shark hunts may seem antiquated—after all, even Jaws depicts Quint as a throwback to another era. But according to filmmaker and environmentalist Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of the influential ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, these tournaments are growing in popularity, all while shark populations plummet globally. Annually, around 108,000 sharks are killed recreationally in the United States alone, according to a 2011 estimate.

"We decided as a society a long time ago that top predators on land were important," Cousteau told me. "We don't celebrate or tolerate the killing of lions and tigers. We condemn it. And yet, when it comes to sharks, we're still having tournaments. It is the height of ignorance and irresponsibility."

But for modern shark hunters, the sense of tradition and adventure that comes with killing sharks is reason enough to perpetuate the practice. Take Mark "the Shark" Quartiano, a well-known shark hunter based in Miami, who claims to have killed more sharks than any one person in the world—over 100,000 individuals over a period of decades, according to his own estimate.

"Any shark that swims, I can kill," Quartiano told Juliet Eilperin, author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks. "I get paid to kill fish. Some people don't like it, but too bad."

I was unable to reach Quartiano despite repeated requests for comment. His self-styled online image as a modern day Quint, however, speaks volumes about the enduring public bloodlust for sharks. The front page of Quartiano's website features a prominent "Warning: Politically Incorrect" sign that reads: "we DON'T fly release flags upside down on our riggers, but we DO hang fish upside down on our gallows!" Meanwhile, his answering machine opens with the question, "Hey, want to catch a sea monster?" and fades out with the Jaws theme.

Despite this nod to the "monster" shark narrative, Quartiano argues that recreational operations like his charter service are not the real problem. "Those long-liners do more damage in a night than we do in a year," Quartiano told Eilperin, referring to large-scale commercial fisheries.

The deflection aside, it is true that most sharks are dispatched with a more impersonal touch than the hands-on experience Quartiano promises his customers. Every year, tens of millions of sharks are discarded as unwanted "bycatch," meaning that they were unintentionally slaughtered by fisheries targeting other species like tuna or swordfish. Ironically, the same qualities that distinguish sharks as formidable hunters also make them particularly susceptible to ending up as bycatch.

"They readily take the bait," Burgess explained. "As a result, it is very easy for humans to overcatch them."

On top of that, shark populations are rapidly thinning due to the shark fin trade, which has experienced an explosive boom over the past 20 years, though it has recently slowed as a result of public awareness campaigns and widespread bans. Still, some estimates suggest that up to 73 million sharks a year are killed for their fins—the star ingredient in shark fin soup, considered a delicacy in East Asia.

Shark fin traders often slice off shark fins while the animal is alive, then dump them back into the ocean. Disabled and defenseless, sharks await excruciating deaths from blood loss, drowning, and predation.

"We can't continue to kill ocean life and then throw it overboard," Cousteau said. "It's like trying to catch chickens by bulldozing the whole farm."

These threats, coupled with other anthropogenic pressures like pollution and habitat loss, have resulted in shark population losses of 97 percent in some regions, like the Mediterranean Sea. Bull, dusky, and smooth hammerhead sharks have declined by a staggering 99 percent along the American east coast. A third of all open ocean sharks and rays face extinction, according to the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Even species that remain relatively abundant, like the blue shark, may reach a tipping point where they can't reproduce fast enough to compensate for the millions of individuals lost.

"The conservation status of chondrichthyans—sharks, skates, rays, and chimeras—is among the worst reported for any major vertebrate lineage, with an estimated one quarter designated as threatened by the IUCN Red List due to overfishing," marine biologist and diver Lauren Smith, who founded the shark advocacy network Saltwater Life, told me over email.

Smooth hammerhead. Photo: elasmodiver/Wikimedia Commons

It's difficult to know how much the image of the Jersey man-eater—and its fictional counterpart in Jaws—has played into our allowance of this large-scale collapse of shark populations around the world.

"It may not be that fear is driving the bycatch of sharks or is fueling the shark fin trade," McCauley said. "I don't think it is. But it makes us much more tolerant of not correcting these major problems that have played a huge role in driving shark populations way down across the planet."

"When you hear that 100 million sharks are killed per year and you think these things are man-eaters," he added, "you have a different response than if you had a healthier, more biologically informed opinion of what these apex predators do to an ecosystem."

A century ago, of course, truly biologically informed opinions were much harder to come by.

***

Captain Thomas Cottrell must have doubted his sanity when on July 12, 1916, he glimpsed a shark cruising into Matawan Creek, which runs inland into New Jersey about 30 miles north of Spring Lake. As a tidal inlet, the waterway is comprised of a brackish mix of fresh and saltwater, which was thought to have been an automatic blockade for sharks. Cottrell alerted the Matawan authorities to his sighting, but no official actions were taken.

Meanwhile, two miles upstream, Lester Stillwell, an epileptic pre-teen boy, was swimming in the creek near Wyckoff Dock with his friends, unaware of the shadow that was stealthily advancing toward him.

The mouth of Matawan Creek. Photo: Mr. Matté/Wikimedia Commons

Stillwell's friends clambered out of the water after a brief glimpse of the shark as it made its approach. Tragically, though, Stillwell was bitten and pulled under before he could join his friends, who ran into town shrieking for help and brought back a crowd of locals, including Watson Stanley Fisher, a 24-year-old tailor.

Fisher dove into the creek and eventually located Stillwell's lifeless body, which had nearly been bitten in half. But as he was bringing the remains to land, the shark latched onto Fisher's leg. He dropped the child back into the water to fight back and free himself, and with the help of bystanders, he made it back to solid ground, where he was rushed to the hospital. Stillwell's body was not recovered again for another two days.

Map of 1916 shark attack locations. Image: Kmusser/Wikimedia Commons

Roughly 20 minutes later, a shark—perhaps the same one—struck a half-mile away. Joseph Dunn, 14, was also cooling off in the creek when he felt the animal's jaws clamp down on his left leg. Dunn's brother and friend grabbed his arms and upper body in a desperate attempt to pull him to safety. The boys won out, and Dunn was hurriedly ferried to doctors.

Later that afternoon, Fisher died from his injuries. Dunn, meanwhile, lived on as the sole survivor and final victim of the 1916 attacks. Though he was badly injured, he was able to recount the horrifying experience from the hospital.

"I felt my leg going down the shark's throat," Dunn said, according to the July 13 issue of the Bridgeport Evening Farmer. "I believe it would have swallowed me."

And so, the Jersey man-eater acquired a new title: The "Monster of Matawan." This bizarre series of creek attacks amplified the public's shark phobia to a fever pitch. Even 100 years later, the Matawan encounters continue to baffle shark experts, resulting in longstanding debates over the species, motivations, and ultimate fate of the animal.

"In other words, it would not have been a barrier for a great white shark."

Some biologists have argued that a bull shark is the most likely candidate for the attacks, given that this species has no trouble hanging out in fresh or brackish water. But according to Burgess, there were some important extenuating circumstances that may have allowed a great white shark to wander inland despite this animal's normal aversion to low salinity environments.

"We looked carefully at the timing of [the Matawan Creek] attacks and discovered that they occurred on a full moon which brought the highest tidal waters possible," he told me. "So when the attacks occurred in the creek, it was at maximum water depth and maximum salinity. In other words, it would not have been a barrier for a great white shark."

Further corroborating the great white theory was a catch made by lion tamer Michael Schleisser on July 14, 1916, near the mouth of Matawan Creek. It was a female great white, over seven feet long. Schleisser claimed she had given him "the hardest fight for life I've ever had," according to Capuzzo's Close to Shore.

The shark's stomach contents were examined by Frederic Lucas, then director of the American Museum of Natural History, who claimed that it contained human remains (though he did caution that they may have been scavenged from a dead body). People were eager for a scapeshark, however, and Schleisser's catch was popularly believed to be the real Jersey man-eater. Her body was mounted for public display in the window of the Bronx Home News office in Harlem, New York, on July 20, attracting crowds of spectators for blocks.

Whether this particular shark was responsible for any or all of the 1916 attacks will likely never be known for sure, though the lore surrounding the event favors the tale of a single predator, if only for narrative flourish.

"We can't get into the head of sharks today, far less one 100 years ago, but sometimes you get animals, whether it's humans or sharks or anything else, that are acting abnormally," Burgess said of this "rogue shark" theory. "You get animals that suddenly go on a tear, whether it's tigers or lions or sharks or humans."

But even if the rogue shark theory is true, it depends on the availability of humans in the water, and that's the key point that was missed by so many people during and after the 1916 attacks. Even today, only a handful of people are fatally attacked by sharks every year, out of the hundreds of millions that enter their territory. And judging by some of the perspectives featured in Motherboard's recent documentary "Surrounded: Island of the Sharks," many shark attack survivors maintain a healthy, forgiving attitude towards the animals that maimed them.

"I don't think I'm really a victim of sharks," said Tangui Gicquel, who lost his leg in a shark attack. "I'm a victim of the human impact. They're only doing what they've been doing for millions of years, and the changes are recent. And if they're recent, that means humans have something to do with it."

To that point, the real threat that sharks pose to humans is not their brooding presence in the oceans. It's their ominous absence from it.

***

Our understanding of sharks was changed forever 100 years ago. Now, rising awareness of their threatened future is ushering in another paradigm shift for a new century and millennium. Shark advocacy efforts are awakening people to the reality that sharks are awesome, in both the original and modern sense of the word. Fear that once manifested as hatred has evolved into something more like dumbstruck admiration for the kaleidoscopic diversity and raw power of so many types of sharks, along with a keener appreciation of the benefits they confer to ocean ecosystems.

"There is undoubtedly still an element of 'shark monster from the deep' out there, but I think this is primarily portrayed in a spoof fashion," Smith told me. "The fact that shark species are so diverse and inhabit every ocean on the planet makes them key players, essential to the ocean environment. It is important to remember how vital the functioning of the ocean ecosystem is to Earth itself."

The turning tide of public opinion has bolstered more aggressive campaigns to protect sharks from severe depletion, or even extinction, as a result of overfishing, habitat loss, and other byproducts of human activity.

This is an uphill battle for a number of reasons, including the practical challenge of non-invasively monitoring shark populations in the first place. For all that we've learned about these animals over the last century, they still occupy the most mysterious realm on the planet, and keeping accurate tabs on them requires a lot of lateral thinking.

Fortunately, there has been a lot of action on that front in recent years. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, McCauley and colleague Paul DeSalles published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology on using high-resolution acoustic cameras to estimate shark abundance along coastal reefs. This approach was tested in the field at Palmyra Atoll, where it yielded insights into shark density and movements as well as size measurements of individuals, without disrupting the animals themselves.

Other emerging methods for better prediction of shark numbers include the use of BRUV (Baited Remote Underwater Video) boxes, which capitalize on sharks' natural inclination to check out bait by luring them toward camera-equipped stations. Drones have also been deployed to spot sharks in shallow waters.

A tiger shark visits a BRUV box. Video: NFSXM/Youtube

Researchers can even use the environmental DNA sharks leave in their wake, such as shed skin, saliva, or feces, to detect their presence. "All animals leave behind biological traces," DeSalles told me. "Scientists can collect water samples from the ocean, send them away for rapid testing of any genetic material within the sample, and determine whether any of that genetic material comes from the shark species in question."

This effort to tally the damage inflicted on sharks is a crucial step toward optimizing the reversal of it. When combined with stricter commercial fishing regulations and widespread protection of critical shark hotspots like nurseries and breeding grounds, sharks might regain some much-needed breathing room in the Anthropocene. Some species are already cautiously rebounding in certain areas due to conservation efforts, including the iconic great white shark in Florida.

But while these short-term gains should be celebrated, it will still take many decades or even centuries for some groups to bounce back to their 1916 numbers. Others may already be doomed forever.

One of the big reasons that shark recoveries are projected to take so long is that sharks, like humans, spend a lot of time on their offspring. Many shark species invest enormous time and energy into producing a small number of pups, and it can take several years for these juveniles to reach sexual maturity. For instance, bull sharks gestate pups for around 11 months, and take a decade or more to start their reproductive lives. Great whites, meanwhile, may take as long as 33 years before they begin to produce offspring.

This evolutionary strategy sets sharks apart from the many other fish groups that opt for the "quantity over quality" approach to offspring. But while it is an interesting adaptation for humans to share with sharks, it is also one of the biggest obstacles to protecting them.

"Sharks invented live birth hundreds of millions of years ago," Cousteau told me. "They reproduce late in life and they have very few offspring compared to other fish, so it makes them extremely vulnerable to overexploitation and slow to recover from population decline."

Put another way, the human commitment to protect sharks will have to be an "heirloom" effort, passed down and fine-tuned by many generations. The future of sharks depends on this ability to transcend our ever-latent shark fear, so we can stop their alarming freefall in the oceans, even if we don't live to see their recovery ourselves.

The centennial of the attacks offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the influential hatchet job we've written about these animals, which says much more about humans than it does about sharks, and to pioneer more scientifically informed narratives to replace it.

"The public used to believe that sharks around the US never attacked people," McCauley said. "That was wrong. Then they were led by the media to believe that sharks hunted us down like psycho killers the minute we put a toe in the water. That was even more wrong."

"I'm pretty confident we can all get to a place where we understand that sharks pose a very, very small risk to public safety—and that we can manage that risk intelligently," McCauley added. "When people understand an animal better, they respect it more, and they are better stewards and guardians of it. I think that is absolutely the case with sharks."