After the death last week of a surfer reportedly because of a bull shark in the waters off Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, Thierry Robert, the mayor of St. Leu commune, had called for a shark hunt. Fishermen would, he said, be paid to hunt and kill sharks “by any means” including spearfishing and the town would buy all those larger than five feet. For the first 30 sharks hunted, €2 per kilo of live weight were offered.
But, thanks to the efforts of animal conservationists, Robert has been forced to withdraw his plan as it violates French conservation law under which fishing or hunting “by any means” are banned in marine protected areas.
Reunion Island is a French-administered territory between the Indian Ocean between Mauritius and Madagascar.
Local residents had reportedly welcomed Robert’s plans, with almost 300 surfers gathering in front of the local government building to demand that hunting be allowed in the preserve. While there were no shark attacks in the waters of Reunion Island from 2000 – 2010, there have been seven attacks and three fatalities since 2011.
Robert said that the call to allow hunting of the bull sharks was to “act to safeguard the security of goods and people of his town.” But as Allison Perry, shark expert and marine scientist for Oceana Europe, was quoted in the Guardian, “Obviously the loss of human life is a concern for the government but a move such as this is worrying as we don’t know what the potential impact would be on the bull shark population.”
It is the case that reports of shark attacks around the world have been increasing. On Monday, a man barely survived after encountering a great white shark in the waters off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The International Shark Attack File says that 2011 saw 12 deaths from “unprovoked” shark attacks; this year there have been five fatalities globally. After a number of shark attacks, Western Australia is going so far as to reconsider the national protected status of the great white shark.
Such demands overlook the simple fact that sharks worldwide are endangered. Up to 73 million sharks — a shocking number — are killed each year. Shark attacks receive lots of publicity but, as Oceana Europe‘s Perry emphasizes in the Guardian:
“It’s important to keep in mind what sort of numbers we’re talking about. In 2011 worldwide there were 12 fatal unprovoked shark attacks reported, in 2010 there were six. Over those two years, there is an increase but in actual numbers this is relatively small. As far as the numbers of sharks go, we’re much more dangerous to sharks than they are to humans.”
Perry pointed to a 2011 Australian study that found a connection between an increase in shark attacks and an increase in humans going to beaches, participating in water-based sports and visiting areas that had been long isolated. Perry underscored that “when it comes to shark attacks, surfers and swimmers tend to be more at risk but it’s important to remember that these people are entering the habitat of a wild animal.”
Certainly the sharks have been in the water long before anyone ever thought of paddling out on a board to try the waves. Communities like those on Reunion Island do depend on their beaches, and the chance to swim in their waters, for their economy. But hunting sharks with spears offers no real solution.
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