The mystery of French island shark attacks

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Over the past six years a spate of shark attacks have hit the French Indian Ocean island of La Réunion, leaving nine people dead and many others badly wounded. The problem, virtually unknown before 2011, has traumatised the local population, and in an effort to reduce the danger local authorities have introduced a programme of shark culling, which has outraged conservationists. In all, more than 10 million euros have been ploughed into measures including the erection of safety netting around beaches and the employment of divers to scout for predators close to resorts. But the attacks are continuing, and despite numerous scientific studies no-one knows why. Julien Sartre reports from La Réunion, where locals are anything but united on how to deal with the problem.

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Facing the sea from a beach at Saint-Leu, a resort on the west coast of La Réunion island, the French overseas département (county) that lies just east of Madagascar, a dozen or so surfers were enjoying one of the planet’s best waves for their sport, a roller that just a few years ago was a venue in world surfing championships. But the picture-postcard scene was blotted by two things.

One is the large sign on the beach that, with quite explicit diagrams, warns that nautical activities here are forbidden due to the “risk of sharks”, and the ban, ordered by a decree from the local prefecture, carries a hefty fine for anyone ignoring it, like the surfers enjoying their passion further out to sea.

The other, more dramatic, was a man standing with another watching the scene, with a stump protruding from his right shoulder where once his arm had been. Rodolphe (last name withheld) lost it in 2015 when a shark attacked him close to where his friends were that day surfing the wave. He was not keen to talk about the crisis that has developed on the island over the increasing shark attacks, despite being a victim. “You can just write that I am happy about what happened to me because thanks to me just ten of you can go into the waters where, without the attacks, there’d be 100 people,” he said. “We’re alright now.”  

A man wades out to surf at a prohibited spot at Saint-Leu, on the west coast of La Réunion. © Julien Sartre A man wades out to surf at a prohibited spot at Saint-Leu, on the west coast of La Réunion. © Julien Sartre

Rodolphe’s tetchy reaction is representative of the mounting tensions on the island surrounding the shark attacks along the west coast. La Réunion has become known the world over for the more than 20 shark attacks reported there since 2011, and which have caused nine fatalities. The number is considerable given the western coastline where they have occurred totals no more than 40 kilometres, and has had an adverse effect on tourism, traditionally the premier economic activity of the small island with a population of about 850,000. But a clear reason for the outbreak has not been found.

There are many theories of causes; the increase in the number of people visiting the beaches and a subsequent rise in nautical activities, pollution close to the coastline, the creation of fish farms and marine reserves, intensive fishing further out to sea, or even a mutation in shark behaviour. One of the more surprising was the suggestion that a bull shark in captivity in an aquarium at Saint-Gilles, a coastal resort north of Saint-Leu, sent telepathic cries for help from sharks at sea. But while so many hypotheses have been put forward, including by the local authorities and marine scientists, none has been convincingly proven. What is certain is that before 2011 attacks by sharks were a rare event and were unrecorded on the west coast which is the principal venue for swimming, surfing and bodyboarding.

Scientific studies have been led by the Institute for Research and Development, a French public body based in Marseille, and also by the marine reserve authorities and the University of La Réunion. But none has provided a satisfactory explanation of the problem, although they have ascertained that two of the species involved in the attacks on humans, the bull shark and the tiger shark, live and evolve both in coastal waters and the deep ocean. Furthermore, there are many sharks which travel long distances between the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Madagascar and the Comoros, which was the subject of a research programme, Charc, launched in 2012 soon after the first series of attacks.

A lifeguard holds a sign announcing "Bathing forbidden". Only secured beaches are officially open to bathers on La Réunion's west coast. © Julien Sartre A lifeguard holds a sign announcing "Bathing forbidden". Only secured beaches are officially open to bathers on La Réunion's west coast. © Julien Sartre

“I don’t know how many sharks there are around La Réunion, nobody knows,” said Antonin Blaison, who heads the scientific studies arm of the local fisheries committee and who was one of the project leaders for the Charc programme. His words were echoed by Olivier Bielen, director of the Centre for Resources and Support (CRA), a structure backed by the French government, the island’s regional council and the local authorities of the west coast, and which is tasked with “reducing” the risk of shark attacks. “1,500? 1,000? Just 600? We don’t know the number of sharks,” he commented.

The CRA’s main strategy revolves around fishing the man-eaters. While no-one has a clear idea how many of them swim in and around the island’s waters, at least 130 have been caught off its coast since 2011 in an operation codenamed Cap Requins. The captured sharks are all killed, officially recorded as having been “harvested”.

The formal aim of the operation is to regulate the shark population, but Bielen admits to working with little information. “What we know is that we are fishing large sharks, of at least two metres,” he explained. “The regulating fishing only has a sense in its duration, and given that we only capture large individuals that suggests that the population is dynamic. The sharks responsible for attacks are systematically longer than two metres.” Which in effect means that the CRA director supervises the “regulation” of the shark population without being able to quantify their numbers.

That conclusion outrages environmental protection associations, who have denounced a “massacre” of sharks around the island. “To kill a tiger shark, or a bull shark, is equivalent to killing a tiger or a rhinoceros,” said Jean-Bernard Galvès, the local representative of the NGO Sea Shepherd. “These are animals whose existence, according to the UICN [editor’s note: the International Union for Conservation of Nature] is almost threatened and which are in constant decline.”

Galvès, a very active militant who is strongly opposed to the fishing of sharks, argues that the regulating operation in fact increases the risks to those practicing nautical activities. “One must realize what is currently going on the waters around La Réunion,” he said. “A long line is a fishing line with 25 hooks with bait dropped on the ocean floor next to coral. A drumline is a hook to which an average-sized fish is attached in order, once again, to attract a shark. Some drumlins are placed close to spots where there have been shark attacks. At the time, the Cap Requins scientific committee didn’t exist.”

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