On Jan.21, 2017, the French island of Reunion lost another life to a shark attack; Alexander Nussance. This was the eighth death in the area out of 20 shark attacks off of the island since 2011.
Pro-surfer Jeremy Flores posted a tribute to the young bodyboarder and Kelly Slater, arguably the most famous surfer alive, commented the following:
“Honestly, I won’t be popular for saying this but there needs to be a serious cull on Reunion and it should happen everyday. There is a clear imbalance happening in the ocean there. If the whole world had these rates of attack nobody would use the ocean and literally millions of people would be dying like this. The French govt needs to figure this out asap. 20 attacks since 2011!?”
Slater is not only well known in the surfing community but also in the environmental community, often speaking out about ocean conservation, pollution and has his own sustainable clothing line. Needless to say this comment is slightly offputting coming from Slater.
As written by Alexander Haro of the Inertia, “He was quickly hit by a shit storm of epic proportions, which he is currently still weathering.”
Slater eventually Instagramed his original comment, further explaining himself and asking his fans for comments
Please say what you feel you need to say to me below. I promise I’ll read all the comments and respond if I can. I have been an environmental activist and voice for more campaigns than I can remember. I’ve worked with Rhinos in South Africa to bring awareness and education to the poaching issues they experience. I’ve been a vocal opponent to #SharkFinning and find it a despicable practice which has no place in our world. I’ve worked with the @bosfoundation and raised funds for the protection and awareness around the plight of the Orangutans. I want to become vegan due to the treatment and slaughter of the most defenseless and innocent animals on this planet. I produce clothing from discarded fishing nets to help clean up the mess left behind by fishing industry. My heart is in the right place but now I am being vehemently attacked by the people I have most identified with for the majority of my life. Humans are the biggest threat to life on earth as most creatures know it. But they are also the most capable and able to fix the issues we face. My comments were in reaction to another death of a kid following his passion. I know more about this issues than 99+% of people commenting yet I still don’t know enough. I was in no way advocating for a worldwide destruction of any species. In fact, there’s a chance many more species of sharks and other sea life could thrive without the over abundance of bull sharks in Reunion Island ravaging the local environment. This is not about me having fun and being selfish for my sport. This is a human and environmental issue. Attacking me will do no good in the conversation that will continue to need to happen for resolution around this topic. I have never personally killed even a single shark in my lifetime and am not fronting an effort to do so. So say what you need to say and let’s get on with where this needs to go. Maybe something good will come of it.
Slater has since taken a step back on his original opinion, and Paul Watson of the Sea Shepard also backed Slater’s remorse.
As the pro once said, “If you’re afraid of sharks, stay out of the Ocean.”
Sharks as a species have been historically misunderstood (maybe an understatement). It’s estimated that 90 percent of large sharks have been wiped out regionally. The shark fining trade is no joke either. Oceana reports that, “fins from as many as 73 million sharks end up in the global shark fin trade every year.” The assault on sharks has been a combination of fear and over fishing (fining, bycatch). In general, humans kill 100 million sharks a year.
Inevitably, removing some of the ocean’s top predators throws natural balances out of whack. In Reunion, islanders have over fished the area, effectively getting rid of the reef shark population and leaving room for larger and historically aggressive bull sharks to move in close to shore.
Looking at culling specifically, herein lies the problem. It’s not about the sharks, its about respect and protecting the environment in general.
In January of 2014, the Australian government performed a cull off of its west coast, as detailed by Haro:
To get into the numbers, for those of you that don’t know, in January, 72 baited drum lines were placed along WA’s coastline in an effort to curb a supposed spike in shark attacks. According to a report released, in a three month trial period, 172 sharks were caught, with 50 large enough to be killed under the policy, which stated that tiger, bull and great whites larger than three meters would be killed and dragged out to sea.
Let’s think about that for a second. Although the dead sharks were dragged far out to sea, their bodies invariably attracted more sharks to the area. And here’s the real rub of the situation: in the last three years, seven fatalities were reported, most of which were attributed to great whites. No great white sharks were killed in the cull. The vast majority were tiger sharks, which, according to Sea Shepherd shark campaigner Natalie Banks, “haven’t been involved in shark fatalities for decades in Western Australia…
…According to Natalie Banks, more than 70% of creatures caught on drum lines were either not big enough to be considered a threat or were other animals, like stingrays.
According to Outside, this cull was set out for great whites, but not a single shark was captured and instead the near-threatened tiger shark lost another 68 members of its population. As stated in the article, tiger sharks hadn’t bitten anyone in Australia since 1929.
A study published by the University of Hawaii looked at the effect of a government “shark control program.” The state spent over $300,000 between 1959 and 1976 with a price of $182 per shark. Ultimately, the program resulted in the killing of 4,668 sharks. As the study states, “Shark control programs do not appear to have had measurable effects on the rate of shark attacks in Hawaiian waters.”
Even shark nets, a friendly sounding barrier, often snags these creatures, causing them to drown. Even worse, these culls and efforts focus largely on the biggest sharks, a.k.a. those that have reached sexual maturity and are the future of their species.
When it comes to attacks, it’s really about humans entering sharks territory (they’ve been swimming for the past 400 million years, whereas humans have existed for the last 200,000), and manipulating (read:polluting) ecosystems.
Looking at Reunion where the culprit of these attacks are attributed to the non-native bull shark, their existence in the waters are due to fisherman killing reef sharks (a native species). The reason the reef sharks were killed? Because they ate the fishermen’s product. And similarly, now the area is highly over fished. Land lovers are also to blame on this island. In 2011 the French government hired a team to investigate these notoriously sharky waters. Surprisingly, the divers hand’t encountered many sharks, but those that they did find were near a pile of trash on the sea floor by the Boucan Canot marina and Saint Giles harbor. Unsurprisingly this is the area where the majority of Reunion’s attacks occur. Bull sharks especially enjoy murky waters, lurking in areas where runoff from urban areas and sewage meet the sea.
The other part of this narrative is human perception of sharks, even how we talk about them.
In the Guardian article reporting the latest Reunion attack and Slater’s comments, the third graf states:
So many man-eating sharks now circle Réunion, a French overseas department, that surfing is banned everywhere apart from two beaches that are protected by anti-shark nets. However, with the island’s waves considered some of the best in the world, surfers continue to take the risk.
Man-eating, murderous, and a variety of other serial killer-esque adjectives do not help preserve or protect these creatures in anyway shape or form. Between pollution, the hazards surrounding fishing, and the simple fact that more people are heading to coastal areas than ever before, it is no surprise that attacks are becoming more frequent.
The questions remains; how can we prevent shark attacks?
The answer is somewhat simple. Education, not only when it comes to studying the species but also when it comes to communicating to the public about possible sightings as well as conditions/practices that can foster attacks.
As stated by shark attack survivor, surfer, and activist Mike Coots said in an interview to Surfline, “I think culling a species is fundamentally wrong. Science has shown that it doesn’t work. It actually can make the situation worse. I think we need to focus more on coexistence between humans and sharks. And in order to coexist, that means we don’t kill something we perceive as a threat. It’s sort of a barbaric, knee-jerk reaction.”