Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


reunion

Between 2011 and 2013, there were 11 shark attacks in the waters of Réunion. (PHOTO: SAMUEL HOARAU/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Is It Time to Kill Off the Sharks?

• August 19, 2013 • 8:00 AM

Between 2011 and 2013, there were 11 shark attacks in the waters of Réunion. (PHOTO: SAMUEL HOARAU/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

After a 15-year-old girl was bitten in half in the waters off a French island, authorities started considering a massive cull. But have they thought through all of the potential consequences?

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.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @the_pitchfork.

More From James McWilliams

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.