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Requins à La Réunion

-une tragédie moderne-

Last shark attack in Reunion Island : a hole in the net ? Why we thought it will be ok...

This is the translation of this article (thanks M.P.) :http://leplus.nouvelobs.com/contribution/1559981-attaque-de-requin-a-la-reunion-un-trou-dans-un-filet-le-risque-etait-pourtant-minime.html

 As a foreword, I would like to wish a speedy recovery to Laurent, the latest victim of the #sharkscandal in Reunion Island. He was attacked on the 27th of Aug. 2016, on one of the most popular beach here. The attack happened on a beautiful & sunny Saturday afternoon, in front of hundreds of beachgoers many of whom children, innocent witness of our endless tragedy…

Laurent, a keen bodyboarder, had entered the water despite the “shark red flag”, displayed after a hole in the protective net was discovered that same morning.

Boucan Canot reliving with nets, february 07, 2016

 Yesterday’s hero is today’s foe…

 Coincidentally, exactly a year ago (Aug.2015) Laurent put his life on the line to save a man who had taken the enormous risk of jumping from 20 meter high cliff into a natural pool. This tourist (whom nobody even though to blame for his “foolhardy” action back then) would have drowned as he laid unconscious at the bottom of that pool if it wasn’t for the courageous & selfless intervention of Laurent.  Fast forward a year, and today it’s Laurent who’s paying a dear price for taking a risk that many that day had considered close to nil. Yesterday’s humility from Laurent, a young engineer of 21 who back then had refused to be called “a hero” for saving another man’s life, is now raising the growing unease at the thought of him being mangled for life, but also (mostly ?) at the thought that he’s now considered as a pariah, and might even face prosecution.

In Reunion Island, everything & anything has been done to try and find a solution to put an end to those shark attacks, like those “eco-smart-protective nets”, a world premiere and the only prototype of its kind worldwide.

Nevertheless, this attack happened in this confined space, with a risk close to nil (especially if you consider that “EVERYTHING is more lethal than sharks: mosquitoes, coconuts, etc...”, as scientists & medias are so quick to point out…)

Therefore, how could one fathom that such an infinitesimal probability of an attack in an enclosed space, from an animal which “doesn’t like the taste of human flesh” and “only attack human as the result of a confusion of prey" (as put by most “scientists”) actually leaves a young man horribly mauled?

 Laurent was on his board when the shark bit him on his right arm, cutting it of at shoulder level. When trying to fight for his very life, he lost his left thumb in the process. He then got back onto his board and tried to go back to shore, but the shark wasn’t done with him just yet: he came back a 2nd time and went for Laurent’s right leg. The damage was so bad, it had to be amputated mid-thigh later on.

A hole in the net?

On the day of the attack, a gap (about 2.5m x 3m in size) was discovered in the net. The total dimension of the net is 700m long and 6m deep average, representing 4200sqm. The breach was only about 8sqm, so 99.8 % of the net was still operational when the attack occurred!!

Boucan's net, a day without swell

Who could then imagine that a shark attack would happen HERE, after a year without incidents on the dozens of surfers who are surfing daily OUTSIDE the two protected area? In those conditions, How could one be blamed for being tempted by what seemed like a “safe haven”, after 4 long years of restrictions (on a tropical island, mind you!!)? Adding to the confusion was the poor & chaotic handling of this extreme situation by the French authority, altering between a complete lacks of actions to a strict enforcement of the regulations.

As previously mentioned, such a huge enclosed space, in an area regularly under the assault of the waves & the wind is a “world premiere”, and many of us though that its efficiency was due more to its repellent/deterrent aspect than to its capacity at being completely closed. In effect, that’s the principle behind all types of non-lethal barriers (backed by all shark specialists/scientists): the deterrent effect.

For “our” type of net to be more efficient, the only way would have been to build up to jetties so as to fully secure its lateral sides (the most difficult part to inspect, and the most vulnerable point) from the waves, a complete heresy in a marine protected area.

Up to now (and apart from the occasional trial of enclosed nets) the only efficient type of nets are fishing nets, disposed in staggered rows, without going all the way to the bottom or to the surface, and without lateral sides.

South African fishing nets



Although not fully closed, those nets are incredibly efficient

Another characteristic increasing their potency is the fact that those FISHING nets are actually lethal and catch hundreds of sharks every year. They are inspected every morning to be cleared of entrapped sharks, most of them dead after emitting all sorts of distress signals (visual, chemical, audible) to their kind. Sharks being a highly sensitive animal, it quickly learns to avoid areas where that pose a threat.

As a result, those nets have been successfully used in many popular beaches in South Africa since 1965 and in Australia since 1937, and as early as 2000, there was an article related to the prevention of shark attack in Queensland which had kept their beaches free of attack for 30 years in the protected areas with the help of 35 nets & 276 drumlines.

 In conclusion, no one could have expected this tragic outcome to take place in an almost fully enclosed space, after a year free of any incidents even for those OUTSIDE of the 2 protected area. This feeling was reinforced by the inaction of the police forces in faction around the beach on that day. Indeed, how could they have not enforced the interdiction and let people enjoy the water as late as 5pm if there was any potential risk, especially in such a vital & sensitive area (due to its experimental nature)?

Those who though that this attack was solely due to the negligence & the imprudence of Laurent must be very gullible indeed. 2 weeks after the tragedy, we’re still far from a beach reopening, as we can’t now ignore the potential risk of another attack INSIDE the net, even when those will be deemed “fully operational”.

 Collective amnesia is the norm

Brandishing the “alibi” of total ban to access water (even though it’s concerning the WHOLE island and has been going on for 3 years) is allowing to occult all other responsibilities, including those that led to the establishment of a marine reserve in the heart of a seaside resort area.

Who is REALLY responsible? Those who can’t control their passion, or those who, at the same time, pushed for the development of watersport activities and pushed for the protection of dangerous predators?

Beach life & watersports in Reunion Island are the result of 30 years of public policy, and this latest tragedy raises the question of our very own future and of a utopian cohabitation. If you look at the list of the last 20 attacks in the past 5 years, you’ll see a systematic process of blame toward the victims, whatever the conditions. At the beginning (in 2011), the victim was portrayed as an irresponsible & careless “surfer” who went in the water at dusk, or in turbid conditions. Then (as soon as 2012) when the attacks started to happen in broad daylight, “specialists” were prompt to blame “pollution” and runs-off… From 2013 onward, the major “argument” was that the victim went to places “deemed/known” to be dangerous…

Finally, since the 26th of July 2013 and the decree of interdiction to enter the water, every subsequent attack has been blamed on the non-compliance with the law. It seems that everybody has lost the touch with reality: 7 deadly attacks, 5 grievously handicapped, children, a young swimmer, even a dog!! (Not to mention many “close calls” with fishermen & 3 boats bitten)

 What Now?

 The protective net was supposed to be complemented with some fishing (smart drumlines) in the area of Boucan Canot, but due the legal actions of so called “environmentalists” only 3 months ago, those have been scrapped. This raises the question of the responsibility of those groups (who have systematically opposed any fishing options since 2011) in the lack of decision from the politics and the subsequent attacks, as it seems that some sort of culling is inevitable in our situation. Indeed, if there are too many sharks, how do we know they won’t be able to overcome non-lethal system? They have already managed to enter in enclosed space, so what’s next? Will they turn on to new type of sea goers, so far not too concerned by the attacks (scuba divers, swimmers inside the lagoon, etc...) ?

In the meantime, and no matter what, prevention will have to continue in Reunion Island, as this crisis is and will impact the whole country.

 Free access to the ocean is an inalienable right for Reunion Island as acknowledged by a study commissioned in 2013 by the Department of Ecology (especially since it is inconceivable, humanly and ecologically speaking, to put more than 800 000 inhabitants in a lagoon as small as ours). The essence of surfing is all about freedom, but paradoxically, the ubiquitous ocean in which we grew up, is more than ever refused to us. Reunion Island has long be considered as a small Hawaii, and gave French surfing its greatest international champions for many years, and it is our sons & daughters who represent the best medal hopes for France in the upcoming Olympic Games in 2020. But what after that?

 By Jean François Nativel autor of " Requins à la Réunion, une tragédie moderne" ("Sharks in Reunion Island, a modern tragedy")