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Environment

Shark attacks prompt hunt in protected waters

After a series of attacks around the small island of Reunion, the mayor authorized hunters to kill 20 sharks. Surfers called for a quick hunt, but environmentalists say it's just an excuse to kill.

Shark hunters have been granted permission to kill 20 bull sharks in the protected marine waters around the French island of Reunion. This comes after an increase in shark attacks on humans over the past two years. There have been two attacks in recent weeks, one of which was fatal.

The attacks have triggered a heated debate about killing sharks in order to protect humans.

Following last week's deadly attack on 22-year old surfer Alexandre Rassica, the major of St. Leu, Thierry Robert, initially announced he would hire professional fishermen to kill sharks in the marine reserve. But French overseas minister Victorin Lurel refused the regulated cull, but now agreed to the killing of 20 sharks for research purposes.

"Ten of each species will be caught for the first analysis," Xavier Brunetiere, the prefectures secretary general said. But advocates for the protection of marine life say this is little more than a show-killing intended to appease angry locals and surfing tourists.

Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) (photo: dpa)

Australian hunters tried to kill a Great White Shark last month after a surfer was attacked

All for show?

"It is as scientific as the Japanese whaling in Antarctica. There is no science involved there," Lamya Essemlali, Sea Shepherd France's president told DW. "It's just a hypocritical way of killing sharks, because we already know that these sharks are toxic. There have been many studies. They don't want to call it a cull, so they are calling it scientific research. They just want to calm down the surfing community."

According to officials, fishermen stopped hunting bull and tiger sharks, because they are carrying toxins which makes their meat unedible for humans. That's why their population has skyrocked over the years.

"The plan of the government now is to find out whether they can reopen the commercialization of bull sharks. That's really shocking," Essemlali said, adding that "it is a threatened species, and the sharks in La Reunion that are going to be killed, will be killed in a marine reserve that is protected."

In the most recent attack, which took place on Sunday, a man in his 40s reportedly lost his hand and foot. Surfers want the shark cull to be inacted immediately in order to make oceans safer for humans. Hundreds gathered in front of a police station in Reunion to protest against the French government for blocking the cull.

Great White Shark (photo: Kike Calvo via AP Images)

From 2000 to 2010, there were no shark attacks off Reunion

"For us, the priority is to protect humans. Here, in Reunion island, we have plenty of sharks, it's crazy," said Jean Francois Nativel who founded the organization "Ocean Prevention Reunion" (OPR) after a shark attack one year ago. OPR pushes for more protection - and Nativel says that one solution would be to use drum lines in certain areas to catch the sharks.

"The government here is afraid to say that they have to kill some sharks to protect humans. Because people love sharks," he said, adding he government's plan to hunt 20 sharks was "a joke" as it would still leave too many of them in the water. And it's certainly not a long-term solution, he argues. A big windsurfing event has been canceled as people are afraid to go into the water after recent attacks.

But Essemlali says the surfers are actually part of the problem and that the cull isn't the way to make the water safer. "It is not true that it will promote security, that it will help lowering accidents, because we have to address the reasons why there have been so many attacks since last year," she said. "The main reasons are linked to the way La Reunion manages its waste, and also the way people surf in La Reunion."

Dirty waters attract sharks

Bull sharks are attracted by dirty water. And the waters off the cost of Reunion is filled with food waste and excrements. She pointed out that Alexandre Rassica was surfing in polluted waters when he was attacked. She added that, while bull sharks can be dangerous, it is possible to share the water with them if certain rules are followed.

"But if you have people who surf in dirty waters, who surf at the end of the day, then you have a cocktail that makes it potentially dangerous."

It's not only the surfers who are worried. The fishermen are angry, because the sharks prey on fish and leave them empty-handed.

A box jellyfish (photo: AP Photo/marinethemes.com, Kelvin Aitken)

Jellyfish stings claim more human victims each year than shark attacks

Essemlali stresses that sharks are a key element for an healthy marine environment - Nativel agrees. "Sharks are really important for the ecosystem. It's crazy to see the hundreds of thousands sharks who die every year for their fins. But here in Reunion, there's no fin activity. It's prohibited," Nativel told DW. "So far, no shark has been killed. But humans have been killed."

He says it would be best to restructure the marine reserve - have one designated area for sharks only, and create another one where humans are protected by a drum line.

Getting rid of sharks altogether cannot be a solution, warns Essemlali. "If we destroy this balance in the ocean, everything else will collapse. There has been an explosion of jelly fish population where we've destroyed the shark population. Jelly fish actually kill more people than sharks."

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