La Réunion is a French island located in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar. It’s known for gorgeous beaches, an exotic avian population, volcanic geography, and a mash of patois cultures. It’s also known as a popular hangout for sharks, one of whom recently killed a 15-year-old girl who was snorkeling a few meters from shore.
It was a particularly gruesome attack (she was severed at the torso), executed within viewing distance of a popular restaurant, not to mention the girl’s friend (who swam to shore for help). The girl, who had traveled from France to visit her father, was the fifth person to die from a shark attack since 2011 and the second to do so this year. Although she was swimming in an area that was off-limits to bathers (because of a spate of recent shark sightings), officials were nonetheless shocked that the shark was lurking so close to shore. Her body was never recovered.
The French government immediately responded to the tragedy. From the safety of the mainland, it instructed the island’s prefecture to “find a solution to the shark issue.” One option currently on the table—one that’s about as casually conceived as the request—is a “massive cull” of all sharks that encircle the island.
"[R]ecreational water sports have never been as popular as they are today. When people swim with sharks there will be bites. When more people swim with sharks, there will be more bites."
Such a task would most likely be attempted through a brute force method, one using hydraulic longliners equipped with hundreds of hooks affixed to monofilament thread stretched across the water to catch large fish at random. Alternatively, the government could act with more precision, authorizing a small group of experienced fishermen to target only tiger and bull sharks—the species most likely to attack bathers—from the pristine waters of St. Réunion.
Both possible solutions have obvious problems—problems that highlight our vexed relationship with animals that bite back. An indiscriminate sweep of hooks through the water removes not only the sharks that attack but a plenitude of bycatch that goes unreported. This bycatch can, regrettably, be dumped overboard as trash, and it often includes sharks that don’t attack, many of which are endangered. To say the least, this approach is incompatible with declining ocean stocks, shark endangerment, and the emerging global ethos to act as stewards of the sea.
A more selective culling, for its part, might be less ecologically harmful, but it would be of limited use. In serving little more than a psychological function (somebody’s doing something, so matters are improving), thereby creating a sense of false assurance for otherwise intrepid surfers rather than making a real dent in the actual shark population. Plus, the sharks that fishermen caught in the area would have no commercial value, as they are currently infected with a toxin that makes them inedible.
There are less obvious problems with the idea of a shark cull. There’s no doubt that killing a bunch of sharks in local waters might provide the poor girl’s loved ones a sense of retribution. A cull might even foster hope that other parents won’t have to endure the same agony that the parents of the 15-year-old have had to endure. Beyond that, though, there’s little evidence that such tampering with the megafauna of any ecosystem has more than a short-term impact on human safety. Many species of shark return to the same coastal places to mate every year, no matter what fishing rules happen to be in place. John G. West, an Australian shark specialist, notes how great whites “have been doing this for millions of years.” There’s little chance that a cull in the wake of an attack will do anything to deter that engrained habit. When sharks like a spot, it’s hard to keep them at bay.
Additionally, as often happens when humans attempt to engineer ecology to improve human safety, nature bites back with unintended consequences. Who’s to say that temporarily removing sharks won’t create an opportunity for, say, fat seals to fill the vacuum, thereby stocking nature’s buffet table for an even greater shark infestation, one that peaks just as bathers feel safe going back in the water? (Turns out sharks prefer seals not only for the taste, but because they increase shark buoyancy before long migrations.)
There’s also the question of whether a cluster of horrifying shark attacks has statistical significance worth taking seriously. Dr. Bob Huetner, of the Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, told the BBC that, "That's what the media often doesn't get, as soon as you get a couple of these together they're talking on the evening news about an increase in this, or an increase in that. And that's just not necessarily the case." What is certainly the case is that more people live on Earth than ever before, more people are visiting the ocean than ever before, and recreational water sports have never been as popular as they are today. When people swim with sharks there will be bites. When more people swim with sharks, there will be more bites. Mix in a 24-hour news cycle and you get the point.
West has a handy list of common sense suggestions for reducing the likelihood of a shark attack [PDF]. Ocean-goers are advised to avoid such behavior as: entering an ocean near the mouth of a river (particularly after rain); swimming with pets; surfing or snorkeling near fishermen; swimming at dusk, dawn or at night; and wearing bling, as sharks “can be attracted to the reflected light.” West also advises not jumping off a dock onto the back of sharks (which evidently happens a lot) or swimming in water after a shark has been sighted. My sense is that most people have those precautions covered.
It’s critical to remember that a shark attack, for all its horror, is still a shark attack—and thus essentially a freak incident. You are far more likely to die drowning. The instinct to cull might make a certain amount of emotional sense. However, given that sharks appear not to be developing a taste for people, or becoming more defensive and territorial, perhaps the best solution that any protective agency might pursue—including the officials on St. Réunion—would be to better identify dangerous swimming areas, enforce anti-swimming/surfing/snorkeling regulations, and fund programs to educate swimmers how to be safe in the ocean so they can avoid swimming with sharks while still enjoying the simple pleasure of taking a dip in the sea.