Forbidden ocean in Réunion Island
Innovative solutions for a global interest
The sun is setting on a faraway beach. A beach similar to thousand others in the world. The sea is calm and reflects an explosion of colors. A few dozen meters away from the shore, a lone surfer is sitting on his board, waiting for his last wave of the day. A surfer similar to million others in the world. He is alone with himself and nature. Suddenly, the head of a turtle breaks the surface a short distance away. It comes up for a breath of fresh air and seems to acknowledge the surfer. It’s pure bliss. It’s freedom. It’s surfing at its finest.
Unfortunately, on Réunion Island, it’s nothing more than a distant memory. There are not many surfers left, who risk paddling out for a late afternoon session, even when the waves are pumping. For several years now, all marine activities on open beaches are forbidden and punishable by law. People have been redirected to the lagoons that are safely cut off from the ocean by a barrier reef. This strict legislation was introduced after an incredible series of shark attacks. Réunion Island was hit 15 times in less than 5 years.
After each accident, a shark cull is organized to catch the culprit. But the international opinion, following the voices of many nature conservancy associations, no longer tolerates the killing of a wild animal for a hobby. The “shark crisis” swept over Réunion, now notoriously known as the “Shark Island”.
Despite the obvious risks, a group of surfers always refused to abide by the new rules which would have meant the death of their passion and, some say, their religion. “Those are the purists, they are the resistance,” Jo Besson tells me on a hot December morning at the port of Saint-Gilles, “Ground Zero” for the shark attacks in Réunion Island. In his thirties, he is wearing a white T-shirt over black shorts. A large pair of black sunglasses holds his hair back. “I have always been a free surfer and I don’t like competition. My reputation comes from my old habit of going surfing all by myself or with a handful of friends for hours on end, during the largest swells,” he tells me with a confidence that usually surrounds high-level athletes.
Jo Besson has nonetheless put his bodyboard and flippers aside, caught up with family responsibilities: “The ocean is my whole life. When I became a father, we named our girl “Aqua” and for her I stopped freesurfing for a while. I think that if, like me, nobody had the balls to go against the legislation, there would have been no more accidents and it would have been the end of it. But it goes against our freedom, and for a country whose motto is “liberty, equality, fraternity”, I believe that we are moving away from the values of the French Revolution. Thanks to the surf resistance on our island and to those who were ready to die for their passion, we were able to develop unique structures that today allow the people to go back and enjoy the water once again with an acceptable risk. Without these people, we would be nothing more than a bunch of sheep.”
These innovative structures are the state-of-the-art, made in Réunion, anti-shark netting system, and the protocol named “Vigies Requin Renforcées”, a shark-lookout program Jo Besson works for. “The aim of the vigies, he explains, is the securing a surf spot by professionals who occupy the water column. It’s not a program imagined for 20 spoiled kids who were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. It was designed for the licensed competitors and pool of upcoming champions that will one day set foot on podiums and talk about their island on the television screens and radio waves. Today, not many people are able to point out where Réunion Island is on a world map.”
It has to be seen with one’s own eyes. This crew of young men put their wetsuits on, grab a pair of flippers, a mask, tuba and a ski pole before jumping in waters where surfers were killed in the past years. Yet, during several hundreds of hours of operation, not a single shark was ever seen, let alone repelled, by the team of Vigies Requin. Jo Besson explains why: “We have several vessels at our disposition, one of which is the tech boat, equipped with several cameras pointing in every direction. If there is a shark, or if the underwater visibility is lower than eight meters, nobody surfs and we call it a day. If all the conditions in the protocol are met, then we go in the water in pairs and the shifts last one hour and a half. During this time, the surfers can enjoy the waves with a peace of mind, knowing that they are looked after.”
This job demands a high-level of fitness and outstanding focus. “Vigie, it’s not only our job but our passion, says Jo Besson. The 14 of us all have various diplomas after 158 hours of training. When our eyes are under the surface, we know our role and there is not an ounce of fear in us. We couldn’t be further from a prey, and our sole presence in the water column is enough to deter the predators to approach the zone.”
For the past few months, two surf spots no longer need the Vigies Requin to secure the waters: Boucan Canot and Roches Noires, the most famous beaches on the island are both protected by a unique netting system. They offer no less than 112 Olympic-size swimming pool guaranteed shark-free. Along with the surf spots secured by the Vigies, they are the only places where people are allowed to enjoy the waves, according to the 2013 prefectorial order banning all open-beaches activities.
Elsewhere in the world, such as in Australia or South Africa, the nets that usually protect popular beaches are highly criticized. They are responsible for blind wildlife massacre, killing all kinds of sharks, along with marine turtles, rays and even dolphins. On the west coast of Réunion Island, in 2015, this was definitely not an option. The unique non-trapping mesh was developed to allow all marine fauna to cross it without harm, except the very large animals that are stopped offshore of this physical barrier.
Although its effectiveness is immediate, people that know the ocean’s power can’t help but doubt the net’s long-term viability. During the cyclone season in the Indian Ocean, the coasts of Réunion Island are regularly battered by high-velocity winds and massive swells that destroy everything in their path. Seanergy, the local firm that developed the netting system, had to come up with a revolutionary idea: the two structures of Boucan Canot and Roches Noires can be manually folded to the bottom of the seafloor, therefore avoiding the worse of the destructive marine forces. In eight months, they were successfully lowered and reinstalled several times.
These groundbreaking solutions have a cost. Several days are necessary for a crew of divers to fold the huge mesh at the bottom of the seafloor. Each disassembly and reassembly costs 40’000 euros. But it’s a necessary evil to allow the securing of a 1.5-million-euro-apiece system.
Despite the criticism and skepticism, the nets were an instant success. A large crowd gathered on the white sand of Boucan Canot in December 2015 to witness the inauguration of the first fully secured surf and bathing spot since 2011. A surf competition was even held in the nets of Roches Noires in April of 2016. Both the nets and the vigies are unanimously acclaimed, and the island can finally take a breath of fresh air after years of suffocation.
Yet, all of the conflicts are far from being resolved. A third program is at the heart of a heated debate. “Cap Requins”, the shark culling operations by the CRPMEM (the local professional fishery committee) divides the people from Réunion Island and the rest of the world since its beginning in 2014. David Guyomard is at the head of the criticized program, and he welcomed me at the committee’s headquarters in the town of Le Port. In his office, the desk is literally flooded by files and various papers of all sizes and colors. There is hardly a spot left to put a cup of coffee. “I came back yesterday from Australia, he tells me as an explanation. We were invited in Coffs Harbour to present our project.” The aim of Cap Requins is to lower the density of large bull and tiger sharks in the waters of Réunion Island, by fishing them. “We absolutely do not want to eradicate these two species”, he tells me straight up.
Killing wild animals for the sake of a hobby? An inconceivable idea prior to the shark crisis that debuted in 2011. “Yet, Guyomard tells me, after almost 5 years of recurrent tragedies, many deadly, and after countless discussions and meetings that didn’t come up with an alternate and satisfying solution, a shark culling program became obvious.” Around the world, such programs are controversial, to say the least, especially because they blindly catch species that shouldn’t be targeted. This would have never been accepted by the population and the public authorities in Réunion Island. After months of research, revolutionary solutions were found. “I had the idea after reading about ancient swordfish fishing techniques in Cuba, says Guyomard. At night, they used to put a burning torch on the buoy over their fishing lines. When a fish took the bait, the flame would fall in the water and from the beach the fishermen were alerted that something was going on.” By adding a pinch of technology to this smart recipe, in the form of a solar-powered GPS transmitter, David Guyomard and Christophe “Criquet” Perry, one of the best bull shark fisherman on Réunion Island, developed the “smart-drumline”. This innovative instrument is what was presented to a group of very interested Australians, in December 2015.
As its name suggests, the system is based on a drum line, which is a vertical fishing line with several hooks, attached to a floating buoy on the surface. Mainly at night, when the sharks are easiest to capture, the team of Cap Requins puts the baits on the hooks. When an animal gets caught and pulls on the line, a little elastic triggers a GPS signal that is sent straight to the on-duty-fisherman’s telephone. In less than two hours, he is able to check on the catch and take the appropriate decision according to the approved protocol. “If the drum line catches a larger than 1.5-meter-long bull shark, says David Guyomard, or a 2.5-meter-long tiger shark, the animal is killed and brought back to shore for scientific valorisation. We analyze the stomach contents, the stable isotope for the trophic ecology and if there are traces of toxines such as the ciguatera. All we keep are the jaws, to compare the sizes when somebody is bitten.” What happens when a smaller shark, or a different animal gets caught? “They are released, answers Guyomard. It’s the main advantage of our alerting system. In 86% of the time, the animal at the end of the line is still alive when the fisherman arrives. Some nurse sharks have even been caught and released up to four times. We know this because we tag them before releasing them, and we also tag many other species of animals we end up catching. This way, we can follow the previously caught bull sharks, tiger sharks, kingfishes or guitarfishes with the network of monitoring stations we have along the coast. We use a specific type of bait and hook, which naturally select the animals that are caught. It’s not like the nets used around the world that blindly catch everything, such as turtles and dolphins.”
There are now around 15 of these smart-drumlines along the coast of Réunion Island. Some were installed in “sharky” zones in the North and the South, but most were put in front of the most sensitive areas in the West.“We consider it as safeguard fishing, adds Guyomard, the head of Cap Requins. That way, we only aim for the large predators that threaten the population, by their sole presence in the areas popular for their marine activities.” In the 5 years since shark culling is allowed in Réunion, no less than 178 animals were killed through the various programs (83 bull sharks and 95 tiger sharks). It seems like a lot, but it is in fact approximately the same tonnage of all the shark species that were fished in less than two years by the non-industrial fisheries in the 1990s. Back then, sharks were considered as a resource and eaten, but now all of this meat has to be thrown away because of the risk of ciguatera and other toxins. “It’s really a pity, deplores David Guyomard. For me, fishing should be about feeding people. In fact, shark meat is delicious with the appropriate cooking methods. As there is quite a lot of ammoniac, it’s better to leave the meat in water and vinegar for a while. The filets are boneless, and can be put on the barbecue in thick steaks, on skewers or in a curry sauce.”
Today, Cap Requins is running against the overwhelming majority of conservancy programs. Those who support the culling program are highly criticized. “It’s plainly unbelievable! France is massively subsidizing the killing of sharks, all the way to marine protected areas,” cries François Sarano, the founder of the French ecological association Longitude 181 Nature, which is active on this subject since the beginning of the shark crisis. The nature conservationist bases his knowledge on decades of diving with large sharks, and regrets their killing.
He is persuaded that the existing smart-drumlines are worsening the already troublesome situation: “The baited lines that are used by fishermen financed and subsidized by the French State are attracting large sharks straight into the popular bathing and surfing areas. It explains why they captured many tiger sharks and a great white shark close to the coast, both animals are usually further out at sea. We strongly believe that the elimination of these predators is not the solution to resolve the crisis and prevent further accidents. What we should be doing is working towards a balanced ecosystem, which is what the Marine Reserve is here for.”
Criticism not only comes from associations on mainland France. Thierry Gazzo is a professional fisherman from Saint-Gilles, and much like all the other people living on the west coast of Réunion Island, he was taken aback by the series of shark attacks that started in 2011. He worked for the CHARC scientific study in order to catch, tag, release and monitor 40 bull sharks and 40 tiger sharks. His father, Guy Gazzo, is a spear-fisherman legend on the island that, since the beginning, had warned against the dangers of establishing a marine reserve and removing all of the fishermen from the water column in front of the popular beaches. Guy Gazzo was also the very first Vigie Requin, who decided to secure a surf spot by himself while his nephew was competing in a surf event at the Roches Noires beach in 2011.
“I am 100% behind the Vigies Requin, Thierry Gazzo tells me as we meet for breakfast on the terrace of a café in Boucan Canot, and I am also behind the new nets, if they manage to hold up over time. However, the fishing efforts are nothing but a joke. Today, the managers are focusing on the least effective technique that was used during CHARC. With my technique, which is the hydraulic bottom-set longlines, we could have worked during four years with other fishermen and the problem would have been solved. The political and public will is focused on creating a technical center that generates several subsidized jobs, at the expense of the security and economy of the island. I am not an anti-shark person, on the contrary. I’ve seen bull sharks underwater, and it’s a beautiful sight. You are overwhelmed by the power of the animal, but the problem is that they attack humans. When I kill a bull shark, it’s not a glorious act, but maybe it equals to one less attack. Today, the fishing efforts do not cover the reproduction rates. As long as we decide to cull the bull sharks, we need to do it smartly and get more fish out of the water than what is born, which is far from being the case at the moment.”
Thierry Gazzo even went to court to try and put a stop to the smart-drumline fishing program, which he thinks is ineffective, expensive for the tax-payers and increases the risks of an accident. “According to the CHARC study, the Saint-Gilles fisherman adds, bull sharks spend 95% of their time at a depth of 50 meters below the surface. This is where we need to target them, not on the coast. Tiger sharks are usually found six kilometers away from the shore. Even if it can be a dangerous animal, I have always repeated that it is off-topic to cull this species. The guys from Cap Requins a disturbing the marine balance with their drum lines in front of popular beaches, by attracting the population of tiger sharks close to the coast. This risk is confirmed by the indication of predatory presence after the beginning of Cap Requins.”
David Guyomard, the engineer of the fishery committee, doesn’t agree: “The question of our drum lines that supposedly attract sharks from far away is a myth largely promoted by our opponents since it is an easy one to make the public swallow. We have followed this element during the experimental installation of our drum lines in 2014, while the sharks’ tags from the CHARC study were still emitting. We were able to prove that there was no increase whatsoever in the number of sharks, in the frequency, in the hours or in the days of visit compared to 2013, prior to our drum lines testing. In fact, the baits we use on our equipment are whole fish that weigh between 1.5 and three kilos, whose olfactory traces dissipate really quickly in the salt water and lose 90% of their intensity after 6 hours. The sea band along the coast is not a closed swimming pool, and the olfactory stimuli are countless, between the natural preys, the rubbish from mainland and baits from other fishermen. Our drum lines that are baited only at night in front of the beaches where marine activities take place can’t possibly be held responsible for the behavior’s modification of these predators that were already present in these waters long before our project started.” Still according to the engineer, the tiger sharks are culled because a balance exists between the two species of marine predators. After killing too many bull sharks with the netting system in South Africa, the KwaZulu Natal Shark Board realized that tiger sharks were moving in.
Despite the criticism and doubts, Cap Requins has the benefit of increasing the knowledge and science, and helps to protect the other shark species that are mainly harmless to man. The fishery committee voted a resolution forbidding the fishing of reef sharks, that are still suffering from recreational fishermen. An important awareness raising project was put into place. Ideally, the west coast of Réunion Island would be reconquered by the reef sharks, once the population of bull sharks has decreased. Recently, a “white-tip” reef shark was caught, tagged and released in front of the port in Saint-Gilles. It had been years since such an animal was seen in the area. “Now, we hope that the water quality on the coast is sufficient to allow these fragile species to recolonize the area” concludes David Guyomard.
Still, nobody is able to know if this elaborate shark culling program will bring back the risk to an acceptable level for surfers, swimmers and ultimately the public authorities to lift the ban. Like Christophe “Criquet” Perry, one of the smart-drumline fisherman from the Cap Requins project, told me: “We need much more time to know the effectiveness of our program. There are too many variations from one week, one month and even one year to the other. Sometimes, a month and a half goes by without a single catch. Globally, it seems we are fishing less and less of these large predators. I would have found it really troubling if we were fishing more than before.”
For many educated people on the island, such as Eric Pinault, a targeted and precise culling program is the appropriate answer, waiting for a better solution that would satisfy everybody. Eric is a creole surfer from Réunion Island. He used to have a surf shop and several programs and activities that revolved around his passion. Because of the shark crisis, he had to abandon all of them and say goodbye to his old life. “Without looking into the matter, he tells me, the majority of people will think that it’s immoral to kill a wild animal for a hobby. The ocean is the shark’s territory, and we don’t belong there. It’s the first logical judgment. But here on Réunion Island, it’s a little more complicated than than.” Still, Pinault doesn’t expect the Cap Requins program to last forever: “The international public opinion is in such a contradiction with what is happening here that I cannot see the culling program last longer that three or four more years. After, the pressure will simply be too heavy, such as in Australia where it is almost impossible to kill a dangerous shark nowadays. We really need to look into non-lethal technological solutions. For me, the future will all be about detection”.
In this domain, there are countless prototypes. An Australian firm developed a “Clever Buoy”, capable with its state-of-the-art sonar to detect and differentiate a shark from a marine mammal for example. It works a little like the facial detection on Facebook. Once the computer is positive there is a predator heading towards a popular beach, it sends the information to the lifesavers who are able to quickly react.
Repulsive systems are also being developed around the world. Most of these new devices use magnets to inconvenience the hyper-sensibility of the sharks’ ampullae of Lorenzini. These instruments, usually quite costly and not 100% effective, come in all shapes and sizes: nets, underwater structures imitating kelp, bracelets to wear before going in the water. There are even devices that can be incorporated into surfboards, with an electrode at each end of the board, and a rechargeable battery. “It repels the sharks in a three-meter radius around the surfboard, explains Mickey Rat, and Australian surf shop owner in Saint-Leu that sell the Surf Safe device. It was developed in Western Australia, and I never go surfing without mine. It costs around 400 euros, and I sold around a hundred items in the past years. It literally saved my shop!”
Réunion Island has been spared of shark attacks for more than a year now. The last fatal accident is still fresh in every memory, as Elio, a 13-year-old upcoming surf champion and loved member of the community was killed on a Sunday of April of 2015, only three days before the beginning of the Vigies Requins program. The people of Réunion can’t help but wonder if this long attack-free period is only temporary, or if it’s finally the light at the end of the tunnel.
Despite the tragedies, the “shark crisis” that hit the island sparked innovative ideas, and we are now much more knowledgeable on the elusive marine predators. Recently, a “resource and support center on the shark risk” was created to coordinate the efforts. Many countries are interested and are closely watching what has been happening in Réunion, the only island surrounded by a forbidden ocean…. For how long?