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Responding Effectively to Shark Bites: The Challenge at Reunion Island

In 2011, the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean experienced six shark bite incidents, two of which were fatal with one serious injury. In 2012, Reunion has had more tragedies as one fatality on 24 July was followed by a serious shark bite on 5 August. In tragic company, Reunion has joined Port St. John’s in South Africa and Perth in Western Australia as the locations facing the extremely difficult task of responding to these clusters of fatal incidents.

The community’s search for answers is understandable. In particular, it is important to note that 50% of all incidents at Reunion since 1980 have been fatal. This fundamental question is: what to do? This week, Reuters reported that France would hire fishermen to kill 20 sharks as part of its scientific research. A local Mayor suggested that incentives should be given to fishermen to aggressively address the shark bite problem. And, again, the goal of addressing the issue, stopping future shark bites and restoring safety is reasonable. However, the question is whether these methods work at stopping shark bites?

A study by Wetherbee, Lowe and Crowe (1994) looked at the success of shark control programs in Hawaii over 30 years. Their report in the journal Pacific Science found that shark control (in this case, long line fishing) to cull shark numbers did not reduce the number of shark attacks. They wrote: "Based on records of shark attacks in Hawaii that meet the criteria of the ISAF (drawn from a larger pool of incidents reported by G. Balazs [1992, unpublished data]), there was no difference between the average number of shark attacks per year for the 18 yr before control efforts (0.6) and during the 18 yr that control programs intermittently operated (0.6)."

In addition, it is important to look at the data on beach nets (gill nets) out of Australia from more than 50 years of data. A report in 2009 out of New South Wales stated that, “the available data for the number of shark attacks suggests that the annual rate of attack was the same both before and after meshing commenced" (pg. 27).

Often, Government responses to shark attacks include three central elements: a narrative with adequate causation (the problem needs to make sense), feasibility (the solution needs to fit the problem), and rapid affective relief (the response moves the public past the emotion of the moment). Sometime closing a beach is enough, making a statement, or releasing a report. However, in other cases, particularly following fatal shark bites, there is pressure for quick responses that demonstrate public action. Shark hunts are the most public response, but they are also a short-term measure. Shark bites are a long term problem, which is why my research has noted that the only real enduring option is to look at a community wide response that include specific water-user group education.

Water user-groups is a clunky way of saying that not all risk is the same, it can depend on what you are doing. For instance in Reunion, a report shows that 71% of shark bites have happened to people surfing, bodyboarding, wind surfing or doing underwater fishing. Swimmers have accounted for just 5% of shark bites and divers 8%. Targeting an education program toward those most at risk and considering concentrated efforts there Changing the behavior of sharks is nearly impossible, but encouraging safer behavior by people facing the greatest risk is a positive place to start.

It all comes down to the recognition that the beach is the wild. It has dangerous wildlife and non-dangerous wildlife, but we have a choice when we go in the water. And there are tips that we can use to think about this dynamic. I call it, a 3 What’s Approach. What’s the time? What’s the weather and beach conditions? What’s my behavior? Starting from here, we can begin to look at the beach as an active ecosystem. I listed some of the things to look for before we get in the water in a recent posting on The Conversation and some these included:

    What’s the weather?

  1. Has there been a storm, did it rain? (avoid swimming after heavy storms, particularly near sewage outfalls)
  2. What’s the time / environmental conditions?

  3. Time of day (avoid swimming at dawn or dusk)
  4. Time of year (avoid periods with sardine runs, seal pupping and dead whales)
  5. Presence of shark’s prey (avoid swimming if there are seals, dolphins, whales or baitfish nearby)
  6. Clarity of the water (avoid swimming if the water is cloudy, muddy, or foamy)
  7. Check to see if there is natural prey available in normal locations (consider a different location if the local area is over-fished or if boats bring in fish and dump out waste)
  8. What’s my behaviour?

  9. How far out am I in the water (closer to shore is better; avoid sand reefs, drop-offs, surf zones, and outer shelves)
  10. How long have I spent in the water (there are no guarantees, but longer can increase risk)
  11. Whether I am swimming in a group or alone (avoid swimming alone, swim in groups)
  12. Check to see if I am near a coastal construction site, outfall or other attractants (avoid areas with sewage, active fishing, or other waste).

This approach requires community engagement because the narrative will not be adequate if it does not make sense to people. The ‘solution’ being presented does not solve the problem of shark bites; instead it highlights the risks we face before we choose to go into the water. And finally, it addresses the need for rapid emotional relief by focusing on the information provided to make educated choices. With increasing numbers of people entering the water, education and attention to our behavior provides the best hope for reducing shark bites. This is a long-term plan for a long-term problem.