At 4:30 in the afternoon on Reunion Island last week, at a beach called Étang-Salé located just south of Saint Leu, tragedy struck. As the sun crept toward the horizon, a 24-year-old swimmer, Tanguy, was viciously attacked by a shark 20 yards from the shoreline. His right leg was severed at the thigh and he was rushed to a local hospital, where he is reportedly fighting for his life.
Scenes like this have become far too common on Reunion Island over the course of the past two years. Since 2011, Reunion has borne witness to a dozen shark attacks, five of them fatal. In July, officials reacted by instituting a controversial order that would cull 90 sharks (45 tiger sharks and 45 bull sharks) from the island’s waters and banned surfing outside of the island’s lagoons until Oct. 1 of this year.
When we first reported on this story in late July, Damien Ferrere, a local surfer, told us that he believed the ban would fail to halt locals from surfing the island’s world-class reefs. “I think it’s stupid,” he told us. “I’m shocked they banned surfing in the area…if I want to surf, I will.”
But according to other Reunion locals, fear—coupled with the potential fine they face for surfing—has indeed deterred surfers from the lineup. “Most of us have stopped surfing as much,” said Fabrice Fridmann. “We do still have a group of avid surfers on the south, toward St-Pierre, Étang-Salé, and Saint-Leu, but with all that’s happened lately…it’s hard to say what will happen to surfers on Reunion in the future.”
Although surfers have been the victims in the majority of the attacks, the last two shark attack victims were swimming in near-shore waters. A number of theories exist as to what’s caused the sharks to become more aggressive. One cites the creation of a marine reserve on the island’s west side that has banned fishing and allowed the marine life in the ecosystem to grow, thus attracting more sharks to the area. Another stipulates that the growing amount of wastewater making its way into the sea is attracting sharks.
Some surfers, like Fridmann, have expressed frustration that the government hasn’t been able to protect its people. “The surf industry on the island, tourism, and the general economy is paying a high price for the shark crisis…The government is trying to help with the situation, but I feel like they’re taking too long. Other countries like Australia and South Africa have been able to do something, I just don’t understand what’s taking so long.” Fridmann went on to state that he believes that regulating the bull shark population in the area and creating an electro-magnetic fence to deter sharks, along with other efforts, could go a long way to prevent future attacks. “For now, we have to trust in our love of the ocean to solve this,” he added. “We must find a solution to live together with the sharks.”