In response to a number of fatal shark attacks, government officials in Reunion Island have banned swimming and surfing until October and are planning a massive and controversial shark cull.
A fatal attack on a 15-year-old girl who was snorkeling with a friend earlier this month, which was the fifth fatality since 2011, has renewed calls to do something to reduce the number of attacks. Three sharks were reportedly killed following the latest attack, but none of them were found to be involved.
It’s unclear what has caused so many attacks in such a short time, but it’s suspected that the marine reserve that was established there six years ago to protect coral reefs and biodiversity surrounding the island has led to an abundance of food for sharks, which has led to an increase in their numbers.
According to Surfer magazine, the government has announced a three-point plan, which includes:
“An immediate prohibition of swimming, surfing and body boarding within the coastal strip of 300 meters from shore in the department of Reunion until October 1st, 2013. These activities are only allowed within the shallow ‘lagoon’ and supervised areas as determined by the Prefecture. Beach goers who do not comply with the restrictions will be subject to a fine of 38 Euros ($50 U.S. dollars).
“A total of 90 sharks should be ‘taken’ as part of the scientific ciguatera program to assess the marketing objectives of sharks in Reunion Island.
“A new website, dedicated to inform the public about the shark risk in Reunion Island, will be established in October 2013.”
The ciguatera program was launched last summer under the guise of evaluating the island’s food safety policy. Currently the sale of most shark meat is banned because it is believed to contain a toxin that causes food poisoning known as ciguatera, according to GrindTV.
Following attacks last year officials proposed a cull with support from locals and surfers, but a global outcry and the belief that studies should be conducted to test the toxin first led to them back out. Unfortunately, fishermen were later authorized to kill 20 sharks in the area. The whole thing notably sounds a lot like Japan’s rationale for killing whales in the name of scientific research.
The sharks who will be targeted this time around include tiger sharks and bull sharks who have been blamed in attacks, but some argue that a mass revenge killing of sharks isn’t just unethical, but that it won’t do anything to stop attacks.
“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,” George Burgess, a renowned shark expert with the Florida Museum of Natural History told GrindTV.
Some have also suggested increasing fishing in the area, but Lamya Essemlali, President of Sea Shepherd France, points out that fishing will likely only lead to a dangerously false sense of security and will only “cool some overheated personalities by giving them an immediate response.”
Burgess recommended bringing in scientists to figure out what has changed in the environment, whether it’s the shark population or human behavior that has caused the cluster of attacks, and said that doing this in other places has led to solutions that protect both sharks and tourism.
We know by now the important role sharks play as apex predators in marine ecosystems and that removing them could have a detrimental impact on the environment, especially at a time when global shark populations are on the decline.
It’s tragic that people have lost their lives in shark attacks, but it’s a risk that should be well understood and accepted before we get in the water with them. Mass killings can’t be a solution every time we feel like playing somewhere a potentially dangerous animal lives.
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