MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – Thirty-nine years ago today, countless people across America were afraid to go in the water after seeing the highly-anticipated Steven Spielberg film Jaws.
The 1975 film about a great white shark that terrorizes a New England resort town became an instant blockbuster and the highest-grossing film in movie history until 1977 when Stars Wars came along. Jaws was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category and took home three Oscars, for Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound.
Like the real star of the movie Jaws, another great white shark has become a celebrity along with dozens of others tagged with electronic tracking devices.
Katharine is a 14-foot, 2,300-pound white shark that was tagged off Cape Cod last August.
Katharine became one of the more popular tagged sharks, being tracked from OCEARCH, because she often swims close to shore.
She gained major notoriety when she swam down the east coast, right past Miami, Key West and into the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, she is about 150 miles off the western coast of Florida and experts tracking her believe that in another week she may be heading past the Mississippi River for the Texas coastline.
As researchers and tens of thousands of other people track Katharine via the OCEARCH website, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been studying great whites for a long time and recently released a report that scientists are calling one of the most comprehensive studies of the animal.
The study found that the number of great white sharks is surging in the ocean off the Eastern U.S. and Canada after decades of decline. While that may be bad news if you’re a seal, experts say it shouldn’t instill fear in beachgoers this summer.
The NOAA study, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, says the population of the notoriously elusive fish has climbed since about 2000 in the western North Atlantic.
The scientists behind the study attribute the resurgence to conservation efforts, such as a federal 1997 act that prevented hunting of great whites, and greater availability of prey. The species is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“The species appears to be recovering,” said Cami McCandless, one of the authors. “This tells us the management tools appear to be working.”
Great whites owe much of their fearsome reputation to the movie Jaws, but confrontations are rare, with only 106 unprovoked white shark attacks — 13 of them fatal — in U.S. waters since 1916, according to data provided by the University of Florida.
They are, though, ecologically critical. They are apex predators, those at the top of the food chain, and help control the populations of other species. That would include the gray seal, whose growing colonies off Massachusetts have provided food.
White shark abundance in the western North Atlantic declined by an estimated 73 percent from the early 1960s to the 1980s, the report says. Shark abundance is now only 31 percent down from its historical high estimate in 1961, the report states. The report does not provide a local estimate for the great white shark population, which some scientists say is between 3,000 and 5,000 animals.
The report also illuminates where people encounter white sharks — mostly between Massachusetts and New Jersey during the summer and off Florida in the winter, it says.
They also migrate based on water temperature and availability of prey, and are more common along the coast than offshore, the report states.
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