As a kid, I would’ve never expected that one day I will not be allowed to go in the ocean anymore…
People call it the “Shark crisis” – since the beginning of 2011 the number of shark attacks tremendously increased on Reunion Island. It has become the most dangerous place in the world for shark attacks according to its coastline length. Indeed, 21 attacks were reported since 2011 – 9 of those were fatal. It reached the point of a “crisis” – an event that is going to lead to a condition of instability and danger affecting an individual, a group, a community, or in this case a whole island. It occurred abruptly and led to decisive changes in not only the security but also in the economic, political, social and environmental affairs of Reunion Island.
A memorial paddle-out ceremony for the victims of shark attacks on Reunion Island.
“I used to go every week-end to the beach with my dad and my two brothers”
I was born in Saint Pierre in 1993 and have lived on this island during my first 18 years before leaving for my studies. L’Étang-Salé, the biggest black sand beach on the island, was our favorite beach. I learned how to swim in the “basin pirogue” a little beach next to the fishing harbor, perfect for kids. As older as you get you move to the big and open beach or as we used to call it as kids “le côté des vagues”. A huge ocean playground full of powerful waves. We were jumping in the foam of the waves, diving under the biggest ones and body boarding until our bellies were burning red. Every Sunday we had an American sandwich for lunch and an ice cream from the Chinese supermarket around the corner. I remember my dad waving and shouting at us to get us out of the water.
When the first attacks happened in 2011 it was kind of a shock. I could never imagine that the beaches where I grew up with my family and friends were suddenly becoming dangerous. That the ocean will be a place of risk and potential danger. I think I was naive and told myself that these attacks were bad luck or just exceptions. And so, did many of the people living on Reunion Island. But…
I was wrong! More and more attacks happened and more and more people tragically died or got seriously injured. They were passionate, innocent, young – professionals, tourists, sons, fathers, best friends… At this moment, I realized that something changed and this was not normal. The whole population was left perplexed, scared as to what was happening and what should be done to change this.
Alexandre Naussac aka. KRAPO - one of the names which are sprayed on the walls in memory
“Reunion Island: a tropical paradise turned into a shark island”
At this moment, the media from all around the world was talking about us. Us, a small rock in the middle of the Indian ocean who did not ask for anything. We were seen as the “shark island” “highway to hell” “a shark aquarium” “shark attack capital of the world” “once a surfer’s paradise” “hot spot for shark attacks’’ “Reunion Island shark crisis” etc… At this time, I was travelling a lot and while some years ago no one knew when I was telling them where I was coming from – “Reunion Isl… what?”. Today people are a bit more well informed “Oh yes, Reunion Island! You guys have a huge problem with sharks, right?”. I found this so sad that this beautiful island with huge potential was suddenly only being seen as a shark island. At the same time, I totally understand why – it has been now 7 long years and the situation did not change a lot! How frustrating and strange when you hear the announcement on airplanes warning about the shark problem. I have lived for almost two years in Perth, Western Australia and I know the situation is totally different and that they have more experience, more techniques, more financial means etc.… But come on, the Australian government teaches the population to be aware of the problem without creating paranoia or insecurity. Everyone is still free to go in the water, if a shark is spotted or an attack occurred they will not close the beaches for years. On Reunion Island, there is a feeling of paranoia around the sharks and sometimes it feels like the government does not care or does not care enough. Telling its population to go swim in the lagoon of l’Ermitage is certainly not a solution! Yes, it’s nice and enjoyable for 1 hour maybe 2 hours but I love getting smashed down by the powerful waves, trying to find an empty corner on the packed beaches, bodyboarding until sunset, watching surfers fighting to take the best wave…
I love the ocean and its energy – I hate that we are no longer free to go in the ocean.
Do not get me wrong I am not saying that you should ignore the law and risk your own life, I am just trying to explain that this situation is very frustrating and that there is an URGENT need for improvement and concrete solutions!
Surfers in the powerful waves of Boucan Canot
“Where are all these sharks suddenly coming from ?”
This is the part which creates most debate. People say that sharks have always been here – yes sharks live in the ocean it’s their home but they never lived that close to the shore and as numerous! Reunion has an abnormally high number of sharks in its waters, unlike somewhere else in the world. I am not a scientist or a shark specialist I am just a lambda citizen of Reunion Island who is observing and making his own opinion on the situation. For me it’s a mix of different factors which led to the actual disastrous situation. I don’t believe that there is only ONE single factor which suddenly changed the whole system of our coastal marine life, but MANY complex reasons which combined are having this dramatic impact.
First and foremost, I have to point out that the sharks present on Reunion are bull sharks and tiger sharks which are along with the great white sharks the most dangerous species for humans.
N.B. Tiger shark female give birth between 10 to 80 offspring and bull sharks 1 to 13.
One of the reason is that the Island’s geology with its steep volcanic slopes makes it easier for sharks to climb up closer to the shore in search for food.
In addition, this structure makes it also easy for debris and muddy water to run off into the ocean after heavy rainfall during the period of cyclones for example. The coastline is getting more and more developed and the population is consuming more and more. Each time I go back to Reunion Island I am shocked to see how polluted the streets are, especially on the coastline. Garbage such as paper, plastic, bottles of alcohol, cigarettes, cans and home appliances are left on the streets. If you are from Reunion, do you know for example this trash can on the parking in Cap la Houssaye which is always overflown? Trash bags and leftovers are flying around the parking which most certainly end up in the ocean. And when you know that tiger sharks are called “garbage eater” I am not surprised that they get closer to the shore to enjoy all of our human trash.
Another reason why the population of sharks flourished around the island is the ban of shark fishing and sale in 1999. Our neighbor Madagascar had several intoxication cases due to the consumption of shark meat which contained a high level of the toxin called ciguatera (can be deadly for human). Therefore by “precautionary principle” the government decided to prohibit the sale of shark meat on Reunion! Accordingly, it has been almost 19 years that the shark population is growing without any restriction.
N.B. The results of the testing of contamination of shark samples by bio toxins (published on October 2017 on http://www.info-requin.re) were negative.
Another theory is that the creation of the protected marine nature reserve along the west coast in 2007 is seen as a shark “garde-manger” – a food storage. In this area, certain water activities such as fishing, bathing, use of watercraft etc. can be regulated or prohibited as soon as they harm the ecosystem or its equilibrium. This marine park expands 40 km of coastline from “Cap la Houssaye” (Saint-Paul) to the “Roche aux oiseaux” (Étang-Salé) i.e. exactly where the beaches are located and where the majority of the attacks occurred.
In conclusion, it’s pretty obvious and simple that Reunion Island has the perfect conditions for the booming development of sharks. And as much as people argue about which factor is truly responsible for this change, you can surely say that this is not a normal situation, which requires change. Change in many aspects and a changing behaviour of everyone living on this island.
Beautiful beaches which remain empty
“On Reunion Island, it’s illegal to go in the ocean”
Indeed, to protect the population, in July 2013 the local authorities decreed that in the band 300 meters of the coast of the department of Reunion, swimming and nautical activities (surfing, body-boarding, paddle boarding, longboarding …) are formally prohibited except in defined areas. These defined areas include the lagoons, developed and monitored spaces outside of the lagoons and areas of operational experimentation (ZONEX). But honestly I was never a big fan of the lagoons such as Trou d’eau or the beach of Saint Pierre. In the lagoons are no waves, which makes it perfect for families with children, but once you are older and you are used to be in the open ocean with powerful waves, you get easily bored in the calm lagoons. And the monitored space of l’Étang-Salé–les-bain for example is just ridiculous! Even if there is a bit of waves in this area, it is just way too small. This beach used to be packed with people and now all of these people should swim in a tiny rectangle in the ocean? This is not a long-term solution! Finally, the zonex (areas with experimental nets) of Boucan Canot and Roches Noires are the one most adapted to please everyone. The structure of these underwater nets is big enough to let small marine life pass and to maintain the swell and waves for surfers, but small enough to protect the area from sharks. Swimmers, surfers and body boarders are finally able to enjoy the ocean. However, this solution has proven to be limited once again. Indeed, because of the strong swells due to weather conditions the nets are easily and frequently damaged. Consequently, the zonex have to be closed during the reparation of the nets which often takes several months (currently closed since June 2017). Which is sad because the population really started to live again in the ocean. Thanks to the nets, so many people were finally hoping for a concrete solution but the maintenance and reparation is just taking too long. Lack of competence? Lack of quality of the nets? Lack of concern and priority from the local authorities? Many questions and few answers. Not being able to go in the water not only affects surfers or swimmers it affects the whole economy of the island. Surf schools and shops are almost all shut down, restaurants and snacks along the beaches are empty, the whole tourism industry is suffering.
Waiting for the waves...
”What is being done to reduce the risk?”
Since a few years, the government is experimenting different measures in order to reduce the risk. However, the circumstances on Reunion are unique in the world and very complex. That’s why it is crucial to find the most innovative and adapted measures to this peculiar situation. The process is long and very expensive (we are talking here millions of euros) but the local authorities throughout the years implemented a good mix of solutions.
The “vigies requins” (shark lookouts) is one of them. With a combination of material and human means, their mission is to observe under water, alerte the population and evacuate the water if needed. Boats are equipped with underwater 360° cameras, transmission buoys collect sound information, scuba divers are equipped with fins, mask, snorkel and harpoon, video surveillance stations are set on the beach as well as an emergency station and jetski. A good idea but quite limited. This solution is only used for surf competitions and is not serving the whole population. Which of course is impossible when considering the amount of investment which would be necessary.
In addition, a project called “caprequins” has been implemented in order to capture for targeted sampling and preventive tagging. Sharks are being tagged with a sensor in order to follow its itinerary and presence around the island while others are being fished in order to know more about their eating habits, reproduction, genetics etc. This scientific approach aims to study and understand more in depth the behavior of the sharks, which is in my opinion essential.
Since 2015, as mentioned before, anti-shark nets were installed in two spots: Boucan Canot and Roches Noires (zonex). The nets are being checked every morning and require constant maintenance as the swell and the islands weather can damage it. It even happened that there was a shark attack in the protect area due to a whole in the nets which was found too late while first surfers already went in the water. Luckily, this time the attack did not end fatal and resulted in no major injury.
Nevertheless it is a very promising solution but still not totally successful. Like mentioned previously, maintenance can be long and it takes months before the nets are becoming operational again.
Since the 1st of February , 3 new innovative types of anti-shark nets by 3 different companies are being tested. The aim is to eliminate the previous problems encountered with the previous type of nets such as damages, long maintenance and poor efficiency during heavy swells.
Zonex - giving us back a bit of ocean