In the days since professional surfer Kelly Slater called for a shark cull on Réunion Island, heated debate has been raging online. Slater made the controversial comments in response to the death of 26-year-old bodyboarder Alexandre Naussac, who was recently killed by a shark in the area. 

What has emerged since is a troubling divide between those who support culls as a way of keeping the public safe and those who strongly oppose them. Slater has been targeted by detractors online – he's even received death threats. Shark supporters have also faced intimidation, and the Réunion Marine Reserve office was reportedly vandalised shortly after the controversy flared up.

Following the backlash, Slater went on to retract his statements. "It is easy to get emotional given the recent history with sharks that the local community has suffered, especially when young lives are lost," he explained. "This is a good time to put energy and intelligence into finding a solution that works for everyone ... utilising technology, science, and human emotion. I know a solution can be found that works for all parties." 

The evidence overwhelmingly tells us that a shark cull is not that solution, but it's also clear that growing animosity between the two sides of this debate will only prevent us from finding better alternatives.

Verbal attacks on the surfing community are not going to do anything for shark conservation. Equally, while the likelihood of being bitten by a shark is extremely low – even on Réunion – emphasising this fact alone can appear to overlook the pain of those who have suffered a tragic loss. My own initial response to news of the attack was probably guilty of this.

But we can do better.

"Most of the narrative so far pits people against one another," says shark ecologist Dr Alison Kock, whose work with the organisation SharkSpotters has helped reduce shark-human conflict in South Africa. "If you are against shark culls, 'you value sharks more than humans' or if you are in favour of culls, 'you don't care about the environment'. I believe this is the wrong place to start the discussion."

And other surfers agree. Pro surfer and conservationist Mike Coots, who lost part of his leg to a tiger shark, has weighed in on the controversy. “I know Kelly [Slater] is incredibly passionate about the health of our oceans,” he says. “I think the debate is really showing the importance of sound science needed to understand why these [bites] are happening. There is so little understanding of shark behavior, and we humans are engaged in rhetoric on the best approach.”

Coots has not allowed his experience to affect his passion for shark conservation, and he remains motivated to inspire future generations to learn more about these misunderstood animals. Images: Mike Coots

What we need is a ceasefire, and a way for scientists, surfers, politicians, conservationists, reporters and the public to find common ground – and there is already more of that than we think. 

While we know that the majority of shark scientists oppose culls (as demonstrated by their response to Australia's attempt at one in 2014), it's also true that many in the surfing and beach-going community do not want to see sharks needlessly killed – that's why the 2014 cull prompted such widespread public protest. The same can be said of Réunion residents, many of whom have been attacked online this week.

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Melbourne residents protest the 2014 shark cull. Image: Michael Pickard/Flickr

"Everyone here does not agree about shark [culling]," Bruno Damour, who was born on the island, wrote on Instagram. "Sharks are part of our heritage."

What should be emphasised in these debates is that a region's decision to opt for non-lethal shark control measures does not equate to prioritising environmental concerns over human life. In fact, it's very much about keeping the public safe – and that's because shark culls have proven to be ineffective. Here's why. 

The facts on shark culls

For starters, most of the intended targets of drumline culls – which lure and capture the animals using baited hooks – are large species that are also highly migratory. This means there are no localised populations a cull can permanently deplete. The Hawaiian government, for example, spent around $300,000 on shark-control measures in the 60s and 70s (the equivalent of over $1 million today). Despite the fact that 4,668 sharks were killed, a study found that the programme failed to reduce shark bite incidents.

Meanwhile, removing big sharks can do lasting damage to a species. The largest individuals tend to be female, and these animals take years – for bull sharks it's between 14 and 18 years – to reach sexual maturity. Many large species are also listed as threatened with extinction by the IUCN, and culling (just like shark nets) targets all of them indiscriminately, while also snaring other marine life.

In his initial comments, Slater also suggested that the Réunion ecosystem may benefit from a reduction in the number of bull sharks. This is not supported by what we know from decades of predator-prey ecology research, however. Nature has a way of balancing itself: when there are too many predators for an ecosystem to support, competition for food increases, and the weaker top dogs naturally decline.

In fact, when predator numbers fall too low, an ecosystem can easily be thrown out of whack. During the shark cull in Western Australia, this was of particular concern to Florida International University professor Mike Heithaus, who has studied tiger sharks in the area since the late 1990s.

"More than 15 years of research on the ecological importance of tiger sharks in Western Australia shows that these animals – especially the large individuals targeted by the cull – play a critical role in the major seagrass ecosystems that provide immense benefits to people," he said at the time.

This positive predator impact applies not just to sharks, or even the marine setting. Ecologists who study terrestrial ecosystems have seen that declines in predator numbers allow grazers to overpopulate and decimate local flora, for example. Wolf culls in North America, meanwhile, have given rise to record deer herds, causing damage to local landscapes that may be impossible to undo.

So what's the solution?

While there’s still a lot to learn about the factors that make Réunion a riskier surfing spot  – it’s likely a complex combination of drivers – we have to start with what we do know. Here, Slater's second statement hit the mark: it's time for us to put technology and scientific knowledge to work, and get behind solutions that have proven to be effective.

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A flagging system alters beach-goers of shark sightings, or poor shark-spotting conditions. Image: flowcomm/Flickr
For Kock and the team at SharkSpotters, this has involved using an early-warning system coupled with education and awareness programmes. 

"No one wants to see people injured or killed," she says. "And many people want to live in a healthy environment. It doesn't have to be a choice between sharks or people – it can be both. And that is what we have achieved as a community working together in Cape Town."

While a designated team of people patrolling for sharks may sound like a costly solution, many local community members have volunteered to help in the efforts, and anyone can submit sightings. In fact, the funds to formalise the programme were raised by the surfing community. A flagging system has also been introduced to alert swimmers to the presence of sharks in the water, or – just as importantly – to indicate poor spotting conditions.

"This ensures people have the most up-to-date information to make informed decisions," Kock says.

Unlike culling programmes, which can give swimmers a false sense of security in the water, this strategy encourages the public to be "shark smart", stay attentive and adhere to no-swim zones. 

Patrolling such zones during times of shark abundance (which can fluctuate depending on available prey, time of year and environmental changes like temperature shifts) is also vital to reducing risk. Naussac was killed at the mouth of the Mat River, where swimming is currently prohibited. Better enforcement in this area may have helped to prevent the tragedy. 

These solutions might sound simple, but implementing them requires commitment and consistency from local legislators, as well as the local community. When the Byron Shire area in New South Wales opted for shark spotting over shark nets, they were forced to do so without financial aid from the government. Yet that programme turned out to be highly successful.

Over in Brazil, meanwhile, a new approach to shark control that involves capturing, transporting and releasing large sharks offshore (while providing an opportunity for scientists to tag and track the caught individuals) has also shown promise in reducing the number of shark bites.

"Each area will have different needs and methods that are applicable," says Kock. "So one can't use a one-size-fits-all approach. But, if we start at finding common ground and realising that it doesn't have to be 'us' or 'them,' I think the discussions – and ultimately the results – will be far more constructive."


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