Forbidden ocean in Réunion Island
A rude awakening
In the beginning of 2016, tension is building up on Réunion Island. “Cap Requins”, a program aimed at fishing large coastal sharks in a protected marine reserve, is dividing opinions. The 15 members of the reserve’s scientific committee are all publicly against it, and several NGOs have recently filed a formal complaint against the program. Killing sharks in the name of a hobby, with the State’s benediction and fundings? Rarely has a topic been more controversial.
We packed our gear and booked a plane ticket, to explore the tropical island and its supposedly shark infested waters. Along this investigation, the complexity of the situation slowly revealed itself. Questions needed to be answered: How have we come to allow the culling of sharks in a marine reserve? What can explain such a surge in the attacks – 16 in four years on a 40-kilometer-long stretch of coast, seven of which were fatal? What do we really know of this apex predator that has recently been put on the highest pedestal? And who are these French surfers, usually the defenders of the ocean, now demanding the killing of wild animals?
“Surfing as we know it is dead in Réunion Island,” such is the overwhelming picture drawn by Eric Pinault. The French surfer welcomes me for a chat at his apartment in Étang-Salé on the South-West part of the island. This 40-year-old creole spent half of his life pushing for a healthy development of surfing on his island, only to see his efforts crumble to pieces before his eyes, powerless. We talk about the subject for hours, and along the conversation the skinny surfer relives the scenes with intense energy, moving around, sometimes gazing in the distance, then looking intensely into my eyes. “There have always been shark attacks in Réunion Island, Eric tells me while lighting yet another red Marlboro that he will smoke to the filter. When you look at the reports, the accidents always took place in the Wild South as we call it, or in the East. Here in the west of the island, we have been surfing for decades in all types of conditions without a single problem. Not giving it a second thought, we used to paddle out as soon as the waves were good, even when the water was brown from all the rain pouring down during the cyclone seasons. For fun, some would sometimes even go surfing at night. The spots were all approved by the prefecture, it was safe, it was paradise!”
Eric Pinault speaks in the past tense, because his small volcanic island is going through a five-year-long crisis. Several local families are mourning after losing a close one. Young athletes are mutilated. The economy heavily suffers from the image of “Shark Island”, while unemployment is already three to four times higher than on mainland France. The marine reserve is violently criticized. War is raging between the local ocean users and nature conservationists. More troubling: racial tensions start to creep up in one of France’s most culturally diverse regions. “On Réunion island, explains Eric Pinault, white people from mainland are called the “Zoreils”, which means ears in creole. The whole area around Saint-Gilles, in the West, where the sun always shines and where all the most beautiful houses and hotels are, is known as Zoreil-land. It’s the symbol of white privilege over creole people. Different groups tried to convince us that the “shark crisis” as we have named it, is the golden youth’s problem of Saint-Gilles only. The shark, this apex predator that belongs in the ocean, is the reincarnation of a true local. Therefore, he only targets rich white kids as a payback for years of oppression. At some point, sharks were being turned into a symbol of resistance against mainland and its expatriates.”
The list of crimes is impressive, and the culprit’s name is on every billboard: the bull shark, a mindless killing machine from the depths of our oceans that must be stopped at all costs. Yet, for the past decade or so, it is an entirely different message that is being broadcasted by countless environmentalist groups: sharks are widely misunderstood, and do not target humans on purpose. They only mistake us several times every year, while in the meantime mankind is responsible for a true massacre. Around the globe, more than 100 million sharks are said to be slaughtered annually. These two voluntarily simplistic speeches have been repetitively shot from one side to the other in a heated debate that reached violent heights. The reality, as we will see along the chapters of this article, is a lot more nuanced.
To fully understand the “shark crisis”, we need to look back at the 2005-2006 “chikungunya crisis” that almost knocked out Réunion Island. This mosquito-carried virus proved fatal in a dozen cases on the island, and took a serious toll on the tourism industry, ultimately impacting the whole economy. New strategies had to be developed to make the travelers come back. Luckily, the volcanic island has a lot on offer: about 40% of its land is declared World Heritage by the UNESCO. Its steep valleys covered in lush tropical forests offer stunning trekking opportunities, and although most of the island’s coast is unwelcoming due to its sharp volcanic rock being relentlessly pounded by large waves, a few dozen kilometers of shore are protected by a small coral system in the West, creating postcard-perfect white beaches. Reefs, sand and swell are known to attract a very specific kind of tourist: surfers.
Surfing has been introduced on the island in the 1970s, and instantly took off. Surfers from around the world appreciate Réunion’s warm waters all year-round, small fun waves in the summer and large menacing swells in the winter. Throw some French baguette and croissant for breakfast in the mix, and you get an award-winning recipe. Eric Pinault who opened his own surf shop, remembers: “Since 2007, the trend was very positive. I had the shop and a surf school. Our whole lives gravitated around our passion. We used to pick up kids from foster homes, the ones who already had a foot in prison, and take them surfing in the morning. Later, in the afternoon, we used to take them to the shaping bay, and after three months they could walk home with their very own surfboard.”
Worldwide, the sport has become a trend with its high marketing potential. Advertisers love the images conveyed by surfers, such as freedom, health and youth. The young surf economy started flourishing on an island whose reputation was gaining momentum abroad. In the meantime, a marine reserve was created to protect the struggling corals on the west coast, and an ambitious project for an Eco-tramway around the island was being discussed. The chikungunya was all but forgotten, and Réunion Island was looking at a bright future as one of France’s top ecological showcase.
2011 marked a turning point and a rude awakening from the dream. The western coastal region, with its beautiful beaches, palm trees and reef breaks where thousands of surfers had been enjoying the sea without any problem for the past 30 days became the world’s central stage for shark attacks. In just a few months, the predators left two dead and several injured. The tragic episode defied all odds, and a peaceful community was left stunned. After each incident involving a shark, the surfer’s reckless behavior was invariably pointed out: “he shouldn’t have been in the water at sunset” – “the water was murky that day after all the rain” – “the swell was huge”. The public authorities were helpless.
Taking matters in their own hands, a small group of fishermen decided to go out and catch the predator responsible for the series of attacks. A bull shark was caught and killed, the first of many. That single episode stirred an international hornet’s nest. Overnight, the spotlight of controversy was aimed at the once peaceful and diverse Réunion Island.
Too many questions were left unanswered. Nobody knew why the local sharks’ behavior suddenly shifted, nor what was attracting them and leading them to mistake surfers and potential preys. But most importantly, no one knew how many predators were now swimming close to the popular beaches and surf breaks of Réunion Island. The bull shark was the topic of countless discussions, while it’s one of the least studied sharks in the world.
With such a disturbing lack of scientific evidence, and to reassure the population, the authorities launched an ambitious program aimed at capturing, tagging, releasing and monitoring dozens of large specimens of bull and tiger sharks. “Tremendous resources were put into this scientific program” says Florentine Leloup, president of the Shark Citizen association. She spent several years on the island to try and understand the roots of the crisis. “Never before had so many sharks been tagged and followed. It was the biggest study on shark behavior in the world.” Unfortunately, the results didn’t meet the expectations. “Basically, we came to the conclusion that sharks swim and eat in the ocean, says Florentine Leloup. The Prefect (French state representative) made the mistake of promising a more secure ocean after the research would be completed. It was a false promise.”
From 2011 to 2015, it almost seemed as if the island were on a highway to hell, answering to some kind of age-old curse. Year after year, shark attacks just kept happening, at first solely on surfers but later on swimmers as well. Even a dog that leaped into the water after a stick got attacked and killed. Quickly, Réunion was nicknamed “Shark Island”. The authorities were simply unable to contain the risk, and in an attempt to put a stop to the tragedies, a banning on all marine activities in open beaches was issued: surfing, snorkeling and swimming are now punishable by law. The scuba divers are the only ones allowed to keep on practicing, as their hobby was never threatened by sharks.
“Before the start of the crisis in 2011, says Florentine Leloup of the Shark Citizen association, there were around 40’000 surfers on Réunion Island. With each accident, the numbers dwindled and most of the surf schools ended up closing down.” With a ban on their passion and businesses, the reluctant surfers had no choice but to come up with innovative ideas.
Today, in 2016, there are no less than four ground-breaking projects that are being successfully tested on Réunion Island, and the whole world is paying a very close attention. Florida, Australia, South Africa and Brazil are some of the countries that are experiencing growing concerns with bull shark attacks, and are desperately looking for promising ideas. Unfortunately, these breakthroughs came too late for the young Talon and Elio, the two last victims of the crisis who died in February and April of 2015.
“When accidents took place in the Wild South or in the East, says Eric Pinault from Étang-Salé, never did we ask for a shark culling. And we lost some friends, believe me. But today, it is as if a wolf was targeting kids on a ski slope for beginners in the mountains. Banning the ocean is not the solution. Four attacks still occurred in 2015.” After firing his employees, closing down his surf shop and stopping his projects with local kids, Eric Pinault still finds the necessary strength to remain positive: “Sharks have shaken the very foundations of my entire life. I could have become an alcoholic. I know that we will never come back to the situation prior to 2010. It’s over. But it’s an opportunity to rethink our sport, our relation to one another and to the ocean. We have to accept it, and start all over again.”
Cover photo : A silvertip shark (Carcharhinus albimarginatus) in the waters of Réunion Island © Eric Hoarau