Reunion Island is known for its world-class waves, pristine swimming beaches and, in recent years, shark attacks that are tarnishing the image of this idyllic Indian Ocean paradise.
Now, in the aftermath of a fatal attack on a 15-year-old girl earlier this month (the second deadly attack in three months and fifth since 2011), the French-controlled island has embarked on an extreme plan in the hope of ending the bloodshed—or at least making locals and visitors feel safer.
Surfer magazine reported Monday that the government has banned swimming and surfing in all but the island’s shallow lagoon through October 1. Anyone violating the ban will be fined $50.
Perhaps bigger news, though, is that between now and October 1, the government plans to kill 90 sharks (45 bull sharks and 45 tiger sharks).
This plan was announced Friday and the news is so fresh that an outcry among environmental groups has yet to materialize.
They’ll argue, rightly, that removing apex predators will harm the marine environment, and that the threat of shark attacks will exist regardless of how many sharks the government might kill.
Said George Burgess, a renowned shark expert with the Florida Museum of Natural History: “This is an archaic, knee-jerk reaction that seems more borne of vengeance than of science… This likely will blow up in their faces because most visitors to Reunion have a more sophisticated conservation ethic than the authorities are apparently giving credit them for.”
Meanwhile, surfers are livid—but mostly because they’re being ordered to stay out of the water.
“I think it’s stupid. I’m shocked that they banned surfing in the area,” resident Damien Ferrere, 16, told Surfer. “If we want to surf, we risk [the fine] and possible prison time. If I want to surf, I will.”
Reunion Island, which is located east of Madagascar, remains a popular tourist destination despite 11 shark attacks, five of them fatal, since 2011.
Nobody is sure why so many attacks occurred in such a short span, but some speculate that the sprawling new marine reserve is growing fish populations, which in turn are attracting more sharks.
Last year, after a fatal attack on a popular bodyboarder, about 300 surfers demonstrated outside the local police station, demanding a shark cull. The government ended up removing 20 sharks from the reserve.
The two most recent fatal attacks involved the teen earlier this month, in very shallow water, and a honeymooner, while his wife was watching from the beach, in May.
The three-pronged plan was announced Friday during a press conference, at which the prefect Jean-Luc Marx outlined the elements:
—The ban on swimming and surfing in all but the shallow lagoon and supervised areas as determined by the Prefecture.
—The shark kill “as part of the scientific Ciguatera-Program to assess the marketing objectives of sharks in Reunion Island.”
—And a new website dedicated to inform the public about shark risks on Reunion Island, to be launched in October.
The Ciguatera-Program is a shark-fishing program that was launched last August in what was said to represent an evaluation of the island’s food safety policy. The sale of most shark meat is banned in local markets because it might contain a toxin known to cause a food poisoning called Ciguatera.
But the program could also be perceived as an attempt to mask an ongoing shark cull by using the science label to justify the removal of sharks.
Shark-culling efforts are controversial because sharks help maintain balance in the ecosystem, and because while killing lots of sharks might reduce the likelihood of attacks in the short-term, it does not eliminate the threat.
When October 1 rolls around and Reunion Island’s shores are cleared for surfing and swimming, for example, there’s no guarantee that a fatal shark attack will not occur the same day.
But the perception will be that the waters are safer, and perhaps that’s what Reunion Island is striving for.
Surfers, meanwhile, are going to be seriously tempted to paddle out after the arrival of each new swell. It’d be interesting to learn how much the government collects in fines.