Capturing a Killer: The Iconography of Postwar Recreational Shark Fishing

Friday, January 3, 2014: 11:10 AM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Jennifer A. Martin, University of California, Santa Barbara
For much of the twentieth century, the iconography of recreational shark fishing in American popular culture appeared stable. Photographs, films, and personal accounts have elaborated on this familiar human-centered story, in which a person sought to battle and kill a great predator. Hanging upside down from fishing piers, these sharks seemed to be playing a role as the simple, decontextualized representations of a hostile natural world. The iconography seemed to tell a timeless story, but there was also a hidden, more complicated history that the iconography often obscured.

That history involved a set of contestations over the appropriate ways of interacting with these creatures and, by extension, with the ocean itself. As saltwater recreational fishing became more accessible in the postwar period, observers and participants started to challenge the iconography and the histories it represented, especially after the 1975 film Jaws had encouraged audiences to think about sharks in terms of contemporary survival stories. A competing narrative had emerged by the 1980s. In tournaments and other fishing encounters, recreational fishermen in the American Southeast recognized a new and in many ways unsanctioned practice when they hoisted these animals out of the water. Many sharks no longer had fins. Photographs and films of shark tournaments made visible what was once hidden away on distant fishing vessels—the practice of removing the animals’ fins for quick profits. The iconography of shark fishing provoked conflicting visions of nature over time and how one ought to interact with nonhuman animals. Without their fins, these animals could no longer play a simple role as antagonist or victim in human-centered stories about nature. These newly-visible practices and the sanctions they frequently engendered complicates what might be seen as another declensionist interpretation of a larger history about the oceans, of humanity’s exploitation of the oceans.

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