On april 2015 Elio Canestri, a 13 year old French surfing talent, lost his life due to a tragic shark incident on Reunion Island.
Elio was not the only person that lost his life in 2015 on Reunion due to an encounter with a shark. A 22 year old girl had died earlier that year after a shark bit her while she was bathing in the sea at dusk. Actually, Elio was the seventh deadly victim in a string of incidents between 2011 and 2015 on Reunion's westcoast. Although shark incidents were not uncommon along Reunion's shores, the recent spike seemed extraordinary.
The death of Elio also seemed to bring the "shark crisis" (or "Crise Requin" as the locals call it) to a next level of intensity. Angry protesters marched the streets of St. Leu, tipping red paint, resembling blood, on the roads. Shortly thereafter a molotov cocktail was found on the doorstep of the headquarters of the Marine Reserve. The Marine Reserve was introduced in 2007 to protect the coral reef. By some, the Marine Reserve is believed to be one of the reasons for an explosion of shark incidents on Reunions reefbreaks and shorelines.
Apart from the 7 deaths in the period 2011-2015 there were also more than double that amount of bite incidents where people (mostly surfers) lost limbs due to sharks too. They were however lucky to survive their ordeal. From behind my PC and on the news it seemed the fear for sharks like shown in films such as Jaws (1975) was very much real on Reunion. Looking at the way the media reported on the issue it seemed that there was no place in the world where sharks were more feared and hated than on Reunion island.
Having travelled the world over to freedive and SCUBA with sharks without any issues triggered an interest in the cause, effect and solutions to the "Crise Requin". I wanted not only to see and listen to what the circumstances were under which the incidents happened. I also wanted to learn what was happening in terms of mitigations to prevent future incidents.
Causes of the "Crise Requin".
Often the circumstances under which shark incidents happen are a major part of why they occur in the first place. That for sure seems the case for the relatively "young" island called Reunion. The visibility under water along the westcoast of Reunion is an issue if it comes to safe recreation in the sea. During heavy downpours and especially in the cyclone season the soil is easily eroded. It makes the rivers, that run through steep ravines, as well as waters along the shoreline very cloudy. It is not difficult to imagine how black sand beaches combined with big swell and rain water run off provide for risky conditions where sharks hunt based mainly on senses other than vision.
Rapid changes in conditions like current and surge introduce risk too. Even on days when the visibility under water starts out excellent on the reef breaks. Many local surfers know this all too well, as they nowadays use dive goggles to monitor conditions under water during their surf sessions. Some surfers and bathers however take more risk than others.. Especially surfing in the early morning or late afternoon as well as on rainy and overcast days are supposed to be a big no-no on the island.
For an outsider it can be somewhat surprising how many surfers are still surfing the reefbreaks, despite the risk involved and a ban on watersports introduced by the local government. In terms of visibility under water the conditions for surfing were mostly perfect during our stay on the island. Because of that it was apparent to me why a total ban must be killing for passionate surfers. When joining in with the surfers ourselves the local police arrived and warned us that surfing was illegal, but then left the scene. After they were out of sight all surfers returned to their daily business. Most even never got called out of the water..
It was very clear that the position of a strong local surf culture on Reunion has been key in how the situation has evolved. The surf lobby has been pushing for safer surfing by demanding from local government to take more action on the issue. A slow bureaucratic French government was blamed more than often for behaving restrained on acting on the issue while more names were added to the list of lives lost. The street art and graffity on the walls of coastal villages and warning signs on beaches make the feelings of a lot of surfers all to clear.
During conversations with locals other reasons for the conflict between large sharks and people (apart from the visibility issue) were mentioned too:
- - Reunions perfect habitat for big sharks (with deep water close by, but also fresh water systems for bullshark offspring).
- - Absence of direct competition from smaller reef sharks (fished out earlier).
- - Overfishing on prey fish in the seas around Reunion.
- - Ban on commercial fisheries for sharks and sale of sharkmeat since 1999.
- - Urbanization & untreated waste water run off.
- - Abundance of prey for sharks in the area, like seaturtles.
- - Introduction of a Marine Reserve (introduced in 2007 to protect the reef ecosystem).
- - Fishfarm close to the island (closed in 2012 after public protest).
Any of the individual factors could potentially increase the likelyhood of a shark incident, but a mix of some of them could well explain the rise in incidents in the past 5 years. The sum of such factors is often described as the "perfect storm of factors". After having been on the island my take on the story is that some of above reasons mixed with the strong surf culture on the island created a risky situation with shark incidents as a consequence.
I do not believe the Marine Reserve is to blame for the recent increase in incidents. While we freedived the reefs without any issues there were actually not too many fish to be seen, indicating the system is still out of balance and recovery is slow. I think the absence of small sharks on a reef system is something to worry about. I also think the management of wastewater and overfishing is something that government bodies can be blamed for. It is not unlikely however that money and conflicting interests of politicians prevents some decisions from being taken properly too.
Solutions and measures
In 2013 the local government has ordered a ban on activities in the sea close to shore, which seems to have brought a tourist economy to its knees. Especially surf schools and surf shops have closed their doors one by one.
Also, the government has introduced a program that tags and even culls sharks on the westcoast. Culling animals however is a highly controversial method to solve issues in human-wildlife conflicts. About 60 sharks were killed in 2014 and in 2015 the culling has continued steadily in the same fashion. In January 2016 in total 7 sharks were taken already. The majority of sharks are bull and tigersharks.
Often Reunion and Australia are looking at each other in how to deal with shark issues. The latter also has a history in shark incidents and therefore has used the method of culling sharks a lot too. In 2014 however the seasonal setting of drumlines in Western Australia was aborted after heavy protests from the public. But although the seasonal baited drumline setting in Australia has stopped, the government can still order drumlining as a method in special situations where the public safety is in danger. It does seem that Reunion currently is more persistent with its structural baited drumline program.
The drumlines are located relatively close to the reef systems where sharks like bullsharks come in from deeper water. They are known to generate by-catch like other types of sharks and rays which have nothing to do with the incidents. Therefore recently more "smart" drumlines have been put to practice. These smart drumlines send a signal to a fisherman to indicate an animal has taken the bait. Potentially these can reduce the amount of by-catch of unwanted species. Another argument against the use with drumlines however is that they also attract sharks to the coastal waters by the scent of the bait, even the ones that might not have come close to shore without it.
Reunions government also has opted for the introduction of new generation shark barriers to prevent the larger sharks from reaching the shallows. These nets seem to have a less negative impact on wildlife than older nets, although shark nets in general are not completely free of discussion due to the fact that they can accidentally entangle other animals too. Recently such new shark net has been introduced to Boucan Canot, on the beach where two of the first victims in the Crise Requin (Matthieu Schiller and Eddy Aubert) were taken. The new net allows locals and tourists to safely recreate in the sea. The barrier installed at Boucan Canot is huge. It actually allows for surfing within it too. More barriers are planned to be introduced. In the past the older shark nets broke often because of Reunions big swells, but supposedly these barriers are more durable. The future will tell how environmentally friendly these nets are, with turtles, dolphins and whales being frequent visitors of the shallows on the westcoast too.
In response to the Crise Requin the Surf League of Reunion has taken its own measures to reduce the risk of an attack on their talents. It introduced a group of freedivers to protect their surfers on the reefbreaks. The Vigies Requin are freediving sharkwatchers that make sure the surfers are safe during their training sessions. As we watched the Vigies at work we were learned how the system works. Five vigies at a time are in the water to actively scan the edges and gulleys of the reef beyond the break to prevent sharks from approaching unnoticed.
They are armed with spearguns and dive knives. None of them however has ever had to use any of these weapons against a shark. Furthermore, two boats patrol the surf zone. One of the two boats is equiped with 4 cameras which stream their footage directly to the video screen in the observation hut onshore. Most vigies believe the presence inside the water column (so diving underwater and not only floating on top) will deter sharks from coming in close.
A flag system on the boats and on shore indicates the level of danger as well as the time till the end of the surf session. Obviously, a red flag indicates danger and orders everyone to get out of the water as soon as possible.
We left the island with a double feeling. Listening to the stories of the locals explaining the impact of the deaths of young lives left us deeply impressed. Losing a 14 year old kid practicing his favorite hobby is terrible. It is understandable that one wants to prevent these tragedies from happening again. The details on some of the incidents however also left room for the idea that some incidents could have been prevented by people involved. The passion for their sport combined with a certain level of ignorance towards shark behavior makes people prone to bad judgement on the risks connected to entering the ocean.
I am convinced that people are not on the menu of sharks. Not on Reunion, not anywhere. These incidents are tragic mistaken identity bites that occur in situations that all too often can be avoided. The measures in place like drumlining seem to be a hefty method for reducing the amount of sharks that purely behave based on instinct. It is however clear that presumable causes to the issue like wastewater treatment and overfishing must be handled too. As long as the right people get a say in it and money is allocated properly then I am convinced Reunion can improve the situation on its shorelines over time.
Reunion itself is a spectacularly beautiful island with natural wonders to be envied by its neighboring islands like Mauritius. Tourists come in for the excellent reefdiving, amazing dolphin and whale encounters and great hiking through its interior. Reunion should in my perception be (and in many ways it is already) a frontrunner in sustainable ecotourism. We can only hope that the island will continue to improve its relationship with its sharks and that it implements measures that respect the local aquatic environment too.
Top predators like sharks have earned their place in the ecosystem long before people did and are playing key roles in that same ecosystem till today. Understanding animal behavior and making people more aware of risks is one of the most important aspects in dealing with human-wildlife conflicts if you ask me. Systems like environmentally friendly shark barriers and the judgment on conditions by Vigies prior and during surfing seem to be way better alternatives in handling the situation than the culling of sharks. Killing sharks is fighting symptoms instead of the causes of the issue.
The online debate on the Crise Requin has often been one of hardliners and foul language due to the emotions involved. But we shared time with locals (amongst which passionate surfers) that were very open to listen to outsiders perspectives to the story. To me these discussions are extremely valuable and help understanding why the locals on Reunion act in a certain way. Also, discussing perspectives helps to consider mitigations to the issue other than the ones that seem logic and simple at first glance.
Only time will tell if Reunion will again learn to co-exist with sharks, which it had been doing for years before the recent spike in incidents. Time hopefully will also heal the wounds of a small island community that never wanted these accidents to occur...
Please also find more images on the story in my Crise Requin portfolio.