An idyllic island located just south of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Reunion should be a paradise for water-lovers – including surfers, snorkelers and scuba-divers. However, in recent years the French-owned island has earned itself a sinister reputation as the shark attack capital of the world.
On 21st February 2017, 26-year-old bodyboarder Alexandre Naussac became the island’s eighth fatal shark attack victim since 2011 – a tragedy that caused outrage amongst the surfing community. In particular, surfing legend Kelly Slater sparked controversy when he joined with local surfer Jeremy Flores in calling for a cull of Reunion’s sharks. Slater, who has been crowned world champion no fewer than 11 times, has previously been a vocal advocate for ocean conservation.
With global shark populations already at risk of collapse due to the pressures of overfishing, Slater’s comments drew strong criticism from conservationists. Experts in the field argue that a cull would set a dangerous precedent, possibly causing irreparable damage to international shark conservation efforts. In this article, we take a look at why Reunion has become a shark attack hotspot, and what the options are for managing the risk.
According to the International Shark Attack File, there were 491 shark attacks globally between 2011 and 2016, of which 43 were fatal. Of these, Reunion accounts for 19 attacks in total, and seven fatal attacks – excluding Naussac, who was killed in 2017. This means that Reunion, an island that measures just 970 square miles, was responsible for over 16% of the world’s fatal attacks for that six-year period.
In comparison, South Africa (another infamous shark attack destination in a similar geographic location) also experienced 7 fatal shark attacks during the 2011 – 2016 period, despite being almost 490 times Reunion’s size. In his initial response to Naussac’s death, Slater claimed that “if the whole world had these rates of attack, nobody would use the ocean and millions of people would be dying like this”.
Whether or not one agrees with his advocacy of culling as a solution, the surfing champion is right in saying that the density of Reunion’s shark attacks is unprecedented.
Explanations for the High Density of Reunion Attacks
So, why does Reunion have such a high density of shark attacks? Firstly, the island’s remote tropical location means that conditions are favourable for apex predators including bull and tiger sharks. The presence of large species like these explains why so many of Reunion’s shark attacks are fatal. In comparison, Florida experienced 152 shark attacks between 2011 and 2016; but because they were mostly inflicted by smaller species, none of them were fatal.
The spate of shark attacks in Reunion only became a serious problem in 2011, suggesting that at least some of the factors are relatively recent. One suggestion is that urban expansion on the island has caused increased rain-water run-off – creating the muddy inshore waters that bull sharks prefer to hunt in. Another theory is that the deep drop-offs that surround Reunion allow pelagic species like tiger sharks to come close inshore in search of food.
Natural shark populations flourished after the island banned the fishing of sharks for food in 1999. This legislative measure was inspired by evidence that shark meat contains high levels of the dangerous toxin ciguatera. The prevalence of larger shark species is also due in part to overfishing in Reunion, which caused the collapse of resident reef shark populations. In response to the resulting ecological vacuum, bull shark numbers in particular boomed.
Ultimately, it’s likely that Reunion’s shark attacks are the result of a perfect storm of factors, many of which (like overfishing and urbanisation) are caused by humans.
Is Culling a Viable Solution?
After Naussac’s death, Slater responded saying that “there needs to be a serious cull on Reunion, and it should happen every day”. The backlash from the conservation community was immediate, and Slater later clarified that his call to arms wasn’t inspired by a desire for revenge, but by a need to address what many see as a natural imbalance in the area. However, fellow surfer and shark attack survivor Mike Coots disagrees, saying that “science has shown that [culling] doesn’t work”.
Coots is not wrong. Between 1959 and 1976, Hawaii implemented a shark culling programme designed to reduce the number of shark attacks in state waters. However, after 4,668 sharks had been killed and the incidence of shark attacks remained the same, the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology concluded that the efforts had been ineffective. Studies have shown that culling simply creates a temporary vacuum that ultimately serves to attract more sharks to the area.
In addition, there are considerable moral and conservation objections to the indiscriminate slaughter of shark species that are as vulnerable as they are ecologically important. Although it is undeniable that conditions have led to an imbalance in Reunion, sharks do not adhere to national borders and global populations are in trouble. An estimated 73 million sharks are killed each year, and both bull sharks and tiger sharks are classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List.
Surfing Bans & Shark Nets
In 2013, Reunion authorities reacted to a peak of five attacks in one year by banning surfing and swimming everywhere on Reunion except for in the island’s lagoons. However, the lure of waves considered to be amongst the best in the world proved too much for Reunion’s surfers, many of whom openly flouted the ban. In 2015, the government unveiled new anti-shark nets at two of the island’s beaches, Boucan Canot and Roches Noires.
However, the effectiveness of the nets was called into question in 2016, when French tourist Laurant Chardard lost an arm and a foot in a shark attack that occurred at Boucan Canot. It transpired that the net had been compromised by a 2.5 metre hole, calling into question the reliability of the system. In any case, shark nets have been proven to be damaging to the environment, indiscriminately killing other marine animals as well as the target shark species.
Baited drum-lines have also been deployed in Reunion. The purpose of these drums is to catch and kill as many sharks as possible, thereby reducing the risk of attack. However, experts question the wisdom of intentionally attracting sharks to inshore areas, making this another flawed (and environmentally irresponsible) solution. In South Africa, shark-spotting teams are used to provide an early warning system for water-users, but Reunion’s often-murky waters make the viability of this idea uncertain.
Potential Solutions to the Problem
Innovative new technologies are being trialled elsewhere that could one day provide a higher level of safety for Reunion’s surfers while still honouring conservation principles. These include the Sharksafe Barrier, an initiative that uses a barrier of rigid pipes to repel sharks using a strong magnetic field. All shark species have Ampullae of Lorenzini – small, gel-filled receptors located on their snouts that are particularly receptive to magnetic pulses.
In Australia, the Eco Shark Barrier is also proving effective. Made from environmentally-friendly nylon, the openings in this mesh barrier are too small and rigid to trap sharks or other marine animals. Instead, the device protects water-users by creating a completely enclosed swimming area that is both impenetrable and durable.
The Bottom Line
Instead of culling sharks, the best long-term solution would be for the Reunion government to take steps towards restoring the natural balance of the island’s reefs. By tackling overfishing and establishing protected areas designed to encourage the return of harmless reef shark species, the unnatural influx of bull sharks could perhaps one day be reversed. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the only foolproof method of avoiding shark attack (in Reunion or elsewhere) is to stay out of the water.