Following a spate of fatal shark attacks in the waters off the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, the French island’s authorities have extended the ban on swimming and certain watersports to September this year and are taking action across the board in answer to the concerns of local citizens, tourism stakeholders and international visitors.
Since 2011 there have been 15 attacks, 5 of them fatal, off Reunion’s west coast which is renowned across the world as a top-class watersports destination. The most recent attacks spurred the prefecture of Saint Paul district – the largest on the island and second largest prefecture in France – to issue an interdict in July 2013 closing certain stretches of ocean to swimmers and sports which use wave energy, such as surfing and body-boarding.
This has not affected the use of the island’s various lagoons along its west coast, which are naturally protected by coral reefs and which attract local and international visitors alike with their calm waters and great snorkeling.
Reports that Reunion is considering a shark cull in an effort to combat the incidences of attacks on swimmers and surfers are unfounded, says Sous Prefect of Saint Paul, Chantal Ambroise, and research is well under way into the causes of the attacks and ways in which the risks to bathers can be limited.
“It was a hard decision that we had to take in closing the seas outside the protected lagoons to surfers and bathers, but it is a temporary measure aimed at helping to minimize the risk to our local and international tourists,” explains Ambroise. “It is a difficult situation because on the one hand we have to be aware of the negative image the so-called shark crisis has on Reunion’s image as a tourism destination, but on the other hand we have to properly assess the risk to our swimmers and surfers and find out why this is happening,” she adds.
Ambroise says there has been a considerable negative impact on tourism and the island’s economy as a result of the shark attacks. Tourism revenue was down 10% for the first six months of 2013 with arrivals down 19% as a direct result of the attacks and the negative publicity they have generated. “We have seen that there is a 60% cancellation rate in the 15 days following an attack,” says Ambroise, adding that in the last two years there have been 5 fatalities, the majority of which were surfers. “We also had a dog killed,” she adds.
“Our tourism organizations need real solutions to this problem in order to reassure tourists that it is perfectly safe to visit the island and enjoy its coastline. We have 22 km of beautiful, safe beaches protected by coral reefs with huge lagoons where you can swim, windsurf, snorkel and canoe. We also encourage scuba divers to come to Reunion as long as they participate in organized dives run by professionally-affiliated operators,” she says, adding that all diving would be at the individual diver’s own risk.
The responsibility for the first 300 m of ocean off Reunion’s coast falls under the jurisdiction of the various prefectures which govern the island’s various districts. St. Paul Prefecture is, therefore, responsible for the majority of Reunion’s top beaches and lagoons and is overseeing the response to the current crisis.
“It’s not a new situation for us,” says Ambroise. “We have been well aware of our shark population and its behavior for some time and considerable scientific research has been done on it, especially on our bull (Zambezi) sharks and the tiger sharks, which are suspected of being responsible for the majority of attacks.”
The island’s Institut de Recherche et Development in the capital of Saint Denis, which has national headquarters on the French mainland in Paris, began a study in 2012 on shark behavior and the protection of beaches and lagoons with nets and surveillance cameras.
“We also instituted an education awareness program and communication campaign to the general public, and put up information panels at every beach,” says Ambroise. “We have lifeguards and boats, as well as Zodiac dirigibles and jet skis at our disposal on each beach. We also have surveillance teams constantly monitoring the stretch of ocean immediately behind the reef system. This includes aerial surveys.”
Nineteen out of 24 cities on Reunion are affected and follow the program instituted by the prefecture, and in December 2013 the Cap Requin safety project kicked off, which captures sharks for scientific research and tags them with satellite tracking devices.
“So far we have captured 40 tiger sharks and 40 bull sharks, and in the next 6 months we will be stepping up the Cap Requin project, tagging 50% of the sharks we catch. The other 50% will be euthanized and tested for disease and the toxin ciguatera which poisons certain reef fishes and those who eat them,” explains Ambroise.
The Cap Requin research project is likely the source of the culling rumors which have been doing the rounds on the Internet, says Ambroise, reaffirming Reunion’s commitment to protecting both its citizens and its wildlife. “We place a very high value on our marine ecosystems and the creatures and plants which inhabit them,” she says. “We are doing everything in our power to protect them and understand more about them in the hope that by doing so we will be better able to protect the Reunionese people and tourists alike.”
The Sous Prefect also says that a new, state-of-the-art acoustic repellant system is being installed along certain beaches for testing. “We will be assessing the efficacy of this new system and its impact on marine life and if it proves successful it will be permanent installed along our main leisure beaches and the stretch of coast affected by the attacks,” says Ambroise.
Economic support has also been provided to local businesses affected by the ban on surfing and other watersports. “We are trying to assist in reducing the impact on these businesses with financial subsidies from the regional councils affected,” adds Ambroise. “It is important that our tourists and international visitors understand that they can still enjoy a range of amazing experiences along our beautiful coast without danger to themselves or their families.”