Authorities on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion have announced a plan to kill 90 sharks along its coastline, in addition to 24 already killed over the past year, in response to five human deaths from shark attacks there since 2011.
George Burgess, director of shark research at Florida Natural History Museum and an expert on shark attacks, immediately denounced the killing program to GrindTV.com and later, in an interview with TakePart, as “an archaic, knee-jerk reaction that seems more borne of vengeance than of science.”
Burgess warned that such revenge killings would do more to hurt the tourism trade on Réunion than the sharks themselves: “This likely will blow up in their faces because most visitors to Réunion have a more sophisticated conservation ethic than the authorities are apparently giving them credit for.”
At the same time, the authorities also announced a seasonal ban on surfing across much of the island, according to Surfer magazine, which broke the story. This measure has caused further outrage among surfers, many of whom had lobbied in the past for a shark culling program.
These controversial decisions came in the immediate aftermath of the latest killing. When 15-year-old Sarah Roperth decided to go snorkeling with a friend on a Monday afternoon two weeks ago, she chose a beach where she has been swimming all her life. According to the friend, who witnessed the attack, they were about 15 feet from the shore when the shark hit, instantly biting Roperth in half and carrying away part of her body. Fishermen sent out to hunt in the area immediately after the attack killed a tiger shark and two bull sharks, about eight to ten feet in length. Their stomachs contained no evidence of human remains.
Roperth was the second person in Réunion killed by a shark this year, following the death in May of a 36-year-old surfer on his honeymoon. Worldwide, shark attacks have remained stable in recent years, though steadily rising as human populations and ocean recreation both increase. The global population of sharks has meanwhile sharply declined, because of the commercial killing of about 40 million sharks annually.
The International Shark Attack File confirmed 80 unprovoked shark attacks on humans last year, seven of them fatal. Fifty-three occurred in the United States, a distant second is Australia with 14, and then South Africa with four. But Réunion, a much smaller place roughly the size and population (800,000) of Jacksonville, Florida, has seen three attacks in 2012, a disproportionately high number, thus causing the intense local reaction.
In one particularly dramatic attack last year, a shark grabbed a well-known champion surfer by the legs and stood him up out of the water. Then a second shark broke the surface and bit into the victim’s torso. His body was never recovered.
The response to Roperth’s death has been remarkably inept. “We are deeply sorrowful about this terrible tragedy,” the island’s head of tourism announced, even before Roperth had been buried, “yet look forward to welcoming visitors to our beautiful island with a reminder to observe our local safety guidelines.” In other words, Come to Réunion, follow the rules (unlike these unfortunate victims) and you won’t get killed by a shark.
Then last week, the island’s prefect, Jean-Luc Marx, announced an update to the planned shark kill. The program got started last year, ostensibly for scientific purposes. The original plan was to kill 20, and then 24, to check them for the presence of dinoflagellates, which can lead to ciguatera, a gastrointestinal and sometimes neurological illness caused by consuming certain contaminated fish. The disease can sometimes be fatal. In one outbreak on the nearby island of Madagascar, 98 people died after consuming a contaminated shark. But that shark was a small inshore species not known for human attacks, and the incident happened more than a decade ago. In any case, sale of sharks for food is already illegal on Réunion.
George Burgess points out that the new killing program targets only the two dangerous shark species, tiger and bull sharks, and will take place only in the area where attacks on humans have occurred. “It’s pretty clear that they are having a focused kill under the guise of scientific research. It’s the equivalent of the mammal research that the Japanese and Norwegians use to justify killing whales.”
A smarter solution, he adds, would be to bring in scientific expertise to figure out what changes in the environment, the shark population, or human behavior may be causing the concentration of shark attacks on Réunion. In other countries, that approach has led to practical solutions that simultaneously protect the sharks and also “the primary interest in tourism, and making money off the beach.”
He says that in almost 40 years of shark research, he has never seen such a program of “wholesale killing sanctioned by a national government.” It’s more remarkable, he says, because the island operates under French law. “This is the biological equivalent of a lynch mob in the Old West, but in this case it’s being done by an arm of the French government. It’s quite embarrassing that an enlightened country like France would sanction something like this.”