In the wake of several fatal attacks on Reunion Island, conservationists and locals are clashing over a proposed cull of the region’s shark population.
Reunion Island, a famous surfing spot off the coast of France, has seen seven fatal shark attacks since 2011, and nine other attacks where the victims survived.
In early June, a 47-year-old surfer was bitten by a shark, and last spring a 13-year-old boy and a 22-year-old woman were killed. As a precaution, the island has outlawed surfing and bathing along most of the coastline since 2013, although many continue to ignore the ban.
The attacks were a discouraging sign that recent methods to deter sharks that prowl the island’s waters were failing. Now locals, desperate to stem the exodus of surfers and surfing schools from the island, are calling for government action.
Many locals believe that the establishment of a marine reserve in 2007, which restricted commercial fishing, led fish populations to grow and attracted predators to the island. Others argue that the island’s rapid growth has caused more wastewater to be dumped into the sea, creating murky waters that are favored by bull sharks.
No one knows for sure why Reunion Island has seen a disproportionate number of attacks in recent years, but some say the solution is to put a bounty on on sharks’ heads. Shark fishing has has been prohibited since 1999 because of toxins in the fish, but locals hope to pay fishermen to thin the number of sharks in the region.
That proposal has conservationists calling for caution. Shark experts believe that the locals’ plan will sacrifice the long-term health of the area for a short-term economic boost. They say sharks are vital to keeping fish populations in check and maintaining a healthy ocean ecosystem.
Clare Daly, a researcher who specialized in shark behavior, says a shark cull may temporarily make surfing safer on Reunion Island, but could have far-reaching environmental effects on other areas.
“We haven’t done so well with all of our tinkering with the terrestrial environment; what makes us think we’ve got the answers for the marine one?” Daly said in an interview with GrindTV.
Daly said a shark cull could also be economically destructive. According to her studies, sharks in the Reunion Island frequently migrate to South Africa, and a cull could irreparably damage the country’s $1 billion tourism industry.
Experts like Daly maintain that the rise of surfers has contributed to the increase in shark attacks. Essentially, the problem isn’t too many sharks in the water, but too many humans. They therefore doubt that an attempt at reducing the amount of sharks will have any affect on the number of attacks.
As an alternative, scientists have recommended a shark-monitoring program that notifies areas when a shark is spotted nearby. As the surfing industry fades out, a shark-tourism industry could come in, revitalizing the local economy. Worldwide, shark tourism generates more than $314 million per year, and is projected to grow over the next 20 years to more than $780 million.
Scientists understand the local’s fear and anger about the attacks, and the need to find a scapegoat. But they say the ultimate response to the shark attacks will have to be more measured than a cull.
“We’re smarter than that,” says Daly. “We’re ocean-minded with a world of technology, science and creativity to tap into for a solution.”