Jeremy Flores On The Recent Spate Of Reunion Island Shark Attacks
After yet another shark attack off Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, the surfing community on this idyllic tropical island is up in arms about what to do to protect themselves while surfing, bodyboarding, and generally enjoying the ocean. Like a lot of governments, the French have been slow to react despite one guy dying and another losing a foot and hand in recent yet separate attacks. To get a clearer picture of what's going on there, we rang up ASP World Tour surfer Jeremy Flores who grew up surfing the perfect waves that litter the island. Suffice to say, when friends are dying, emotions will run high.—Justin Coté
TransWorld SURF: So Jeremy what is going on down there?
Jeremy Flores: It’s pretty heavy. I've lost so many friends and brothers; it's a really emotional topic for me. The French government doesn't give a f—k, these political idiots are all laughing about it [the shark attacks]. Imagine the families of the victims. It’s disgusting— they’re all laughing and not paying attention.
Do you know either of the guys who were recently attacked? What can you tell us about them?
The surfing community of Reunion Island is a big family and the only place in the world where surfers, bobyboarders are very close to each other. Alexandre Rassiga [the first victim] worked in the most popular bar in Saint Gilles Les Bains. I'd met Alexandre only a few times but he was some of my very close friend’s best friend. Fabien Bujon is the generation of my father; he is one of the best surfers of Saint Leu. Everyone in Reunion Island has great respect for him and I know his son Woody really well. We also lost Mathieu Shiller last year at the beach of Boucan Canot, the beach where I learned to surf and grew up—he was like my older brother and one of the best bodyboarders back in the day. He took me surfing and it’s because of brothers like him that I'm where I am now and so in love with surfing!
When was the last time you were home, and what was the vibe like in the lineup knowing about the spike in attacks?
I think I was on my island three or four days before the attack on Alexandre—about two or three weeks ago. This is the first time I feel this pressure in the lineup. It's been very sad to see all the beaches closed with red flags and absolutely empty, even my beach Boucan-Canot where I learned to surf. You cannot imagine the number of spots where nobody is surfing now. We as surfers know that there are more and more sharks than ever in Reunion Island. Our fishermen friends have confirmed this for two or three years.
Have you seen sharks in the water at Saint Leu?
I’ve never seen sharks on my island, but I've been away the whole year since I was seven years old so I don't get to spend as much time there as I would like. When you talk to the first generation of Reunion Island surfers (or my father who has surfed all over the west and south of the island since the age of eight) they will tell you that they've never seen a tiger or bull shark. Maybe some reef sharks—which are good for the balance of the reef. The spearfishermen will also tell you that it was very rare to see large sharks near the shore—they was more on the east side of the island. On the west side, because of the presence of hunters and fishermen, there was a good balance in our ecosystem where everyone had a place, humans, sharks and all marine wildlife.
Do you think the solution is to hunt down a bunch of sharks?
Who speaks about hunting or killing all the sharks? We are speaking about a regulation of a species that begins to eat all other species and also humans. We all know why there is a problem on the island. In 2004, scientists wanted to open a marine reserve. It could have been a good idea, except it was managed very badly. With a reserve, everyone knew that the shark population could increase. And everyone knew that creating a marine reserve in front of the most popular beaches on the island was a mistake. They could have created this marine reserve in the south and east, where we have no beaches. In addition to this huge mistake, they also created a fish farm next door, just a mile down the beach. Now I'm not a scientist—but I have a brain. We all knew that there may be a problem, but we had confidence in our scientists since they had stipulated in Article 26 of the charter of the reserve: “If a species becomes invasive it can be regulated to restore the balance of the site”. These are not my words but what is written in this article.
In the case of my island, there is nothing natural about this risk. It is man who created a real shark park. Where are the reef sharks? We do not see them anymore. They have been rejected or devoured. They are the real controllers of coral reefs. The true professionals of the ocean—those working in the water every day—confirmed that a breed of shark that were occasionally seen in the past following whales, are now settled near our shores—the bull sharks. Specialists who try to make us believe otherwise are playing on words: territoriality, and settlement. What's the difference? It only takes ten minutes to ride a bike between our beaches, what about a shark?
Now there are people who say that we have to stop surfing in Reunion Island because the ocean is the home of sharks and that bathers and tourists must be satisfied with the lagoon. Okay, but what will become of our lagoon now that thousands of people, dripping of sun oil, are going to invade and disrupt this fragile ecosystem and crush the coral. I participate in the Quiksilver program "Reef Check" since I was 10 years old so I know what I'm talking about.
I heard there was a big demonstration the other day in front of a government building. What do local surfers want to see happen?
I know that millions of sharks are already slaughtered for their fins and that shocks me as much as the killing of whales. Why not simply move the fish farm and close some areas of the marine reserve, especially those in front of villages? As it is, what happens to all those jobs and businesses involved in those hazardous areas? What happens to the thousands of young surfers who prefer to spend hours in total connection with nature? They'll have nothing better to do that to get in trouble. These are solutions, which would cost taxpayers much less than the millions of dollars distributed for scientific research for a problem that everyone has long known about. I've said earlier and I repeat, close areas of the reserve and move the fish farm, which is one of the major causes of the settlement of sharks. The closure of these areas will allow the return of humans like before, but of course we need adequate control to prevent poaching and overly zealous fishermen. These low-cost solutions will bring back some balance, without killing all the sharks.
What are your thoughts? Kill ’em all, let nature run its course, or move the reserve and fish farm? Let us know in the comment section!
Above: Jeremy Flores photo gallery
Above: A recent Oakley team trip to Reunion Island gives you a glimpse into the quality of surf found there.