Surfers are angry at sharks — at least the ones connected to the recent string of attacks off the coast of Réunion Island.
Last week, 47-year-old Eddy Chaussalet sustained serious arm injuries when he was attacked by a shark while surfing the region's famous surf spot, La Follette. In the spring, a 13-year-old surfer was killed by a bull shark and a 22-year-old woman was killed while swimming nearby. In total, there have been seven fatal shark attacks in the area within the last four years.
The incidents have brought a heated ongoing debate to the small French island, which went as far as to ban surfing in 2013 as a precaution. This year was meant to be a transition away from the ban as officials began testing out new shark-deterrent measures to protect the surfers who frequent the waters.
Now, with a severe drop-off in the number of licensed surfers and surf schools on the island, locals have become the most vocal proponents for what they're calling a "cull of sharks" in the region, a proposal to pay fishermen to kill sharks in the marine preserve. Supporters of the cull want officials to take measures to thin the shark population near the surf break in hopes it will bolster the region’s failing surf industry — something shark expert Clare Daly says is the equivalent of "playing with fire."
"By culling sharks, we may address very short-term problems of localized shark attacks," she explains. "But are a few guaranteed shark-free waves worth jeopardizing the health of the ocean? I would think the answer would be no."
Daly has been researching sharks and marine reserves with her husband, Ryan, since 2009 in order to better understand their habits and bust myths about their behavior. After witnessing a shark attack one of her students during a dive, Daly got back in the water with sharks for Nat Geo Wild's reality show "Shark Attack Experiment LIVE" to prove sharks don’t actively hunt humans.
Most recently, she's been tracking tiger sharks in a marine reserve in southern Mozambique. It was there, hundreds of miles away from Réunion, that she discovered something interesting.
"What surprised us was that data from our acoustic receivers picked up three tiger sharks that were tagged in Réunion a few months ago," she says. "If Réunion tiger sharks are coming here, what's stopping Mozambique and South African tiger sharks from going there?"
Daly says her research shows that sharks are an internationally "shared resource." Killing sharks as part of a hyper-localized shark hunt could have potentially far-reaching consequences, especially considering the shark-tourism industry is worth an estimated $1 billion in South Africa, where these sharks are apparently migrating to.
"If the killing of sharks continues in Réunion," says Daly, "surf tourism might bounce back briefly, but what will the impact be on shark watching and diving tourism in South Africa?"
Beyond dollars and cents, Daly says killing sharks in Réunion is a rash decision, considering there’s not enough data available on the long-term effects it will have on the health of local ocean water.
"Sharks are the gatekeepers to balanced and healthy oceans," she says. "[They] maintain healthy fish stocks and keep the food web balanced. We haven't done so well with all of our tinkering with the terrestrial environment; what makes us think we've got the answers for the marine one?"
While locals argue that the establishment of a marine reserve in 2007 has led to a concerning shark population, Daly says it's more likely that the increase in surfers in the water is to blame for the rise in attacks.
"Would sharks be able to establish themselves, reproduce and grow to a concerning size in seven years?" she asks. "No, which is a large part of why sharks are in trouble; they are late maturing and slow growing. The chance that there are more sharks is not impossible, but unlikely."
Daly says the attacks are more likely due to a change in the dynamic between surfer and shark — especially considering "human" is never on the menu for a shark. "Sharks don't hunt humans," she explains. "They may be top ocean predators, but they can't adapt their diet and foraging strategy in the short amount of time that humans have been using the ocean to start hunting us. So that's out. How do we know that by reducing the number of sharks — which a cull does — it will stop the attacks?"
Whatever the answer to the problem is, it's going to be more complex than a few dead sharks, says Daly. "We're smarter than that," she says. "We're ocean-minded with a world of technology, science and creativity to tap into for a solution. For surfers, there needs to be a local solution."
Daly points to the Shark Spotters program in Cape Town, South Africa, as an example of a non-lethal shark-monitoring program. As for the degradation of Réunion's surf industry, Daly says a shark watching and diving economy could be the answer.
"Worldwide, tourists traveling to see sharks generate more than $314 million per year," she says, adding that projected growth over the next 20 years will amount to more than $780 million. "In a place where sharks seem to be a problem, sharks may also be the solution."
More from GrindTV