Writer, Surfer
Mark Healey swimming with a tiger in Baja Mexico. Photo: Team Effort Films

Mark Healey swimming with a tiger in Baja Mexico. Photo: Team Effort Films


The Inertia

Apparently, Kelly Slater has backpedaled on his suggestion that culling sharks on Reunion Island might be a viable solution. In dialogue with Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd, Slater said, “killing anything in hopes of a solution is not in line with my philosophies about life and I don’t believe are a long term fix to an ongoing problem.”

In the full statement, Kelly stopped short of saying he regretted his original message, instead indicating only that he regretted his choice of words. The nuance in his response makes it possible to surmise that he still believes it is necessary to cull the shark population around Reunion Island.

Kelly Slater understands his role. He knows that anything he says publicly will be scrutinized. He has proven himself to be intelligent, thoughtful and engaged with issues far beyond surfing. I don’t believe his comment on Jeremy Flores’ Instagram was an accident, and I don’t believe he regrets the message. Slater is a man of conviction, and you have to admire him for that. I can’t think of many other icons who would offer themselves up to be so accountable, and so unfiltered.

But regardless of Kelly Slater’s opinion, or your opinion of him, he has again opened the wound of a debate that refuses to heal.

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Other surfers have since weighed in, one of the most notable being Mark Healey. Famous for hitching lifts on the dorsal fins of Great Whites, he has spent time in the water with sharks all over the world. He has worked closely with marine biologists and been involved in tagging projects for many species of shark. Healey understands the ocean and he understands shark behavior. There may be nobody else in the surf world with more right to be an authority on these subjects.

Healey made it clear on The Inertia’s Instagram that he agrees with Slater: “I agree. It was probably time to cull the Bull population at Reunion years ago,”he wrote.

He went on to explain that “ecosystems get out of balance all the time. When they become predator top heavy it creates a shortage of prey items for those predators to survive…they then become more creative with what they try to eat…”

I’ve made my own stance fairly clear in the past. I would still consider myself to be an environmentalist. I love the natural world, just like Kelly Slater and just like Mark Healey. Yet I can’t get misty eyed about the thought of controlling a problematic shark population.

I can’t get past the biological fact that a shark is no more than a fish. Just kill the damn fish and move on. Nothing to see here, no need for weepy internet hysterics. People love sharks and people love to hate sharks. They are icons of fear, mythologized over thousands of years by everyone from ancient seafaring tribes to Hollywood film directors. But still, there is a great deal of misunderstanding when it comes to these animals. As Healey explains, “there’s a common misconception that all shark species are endangered…that’s just not true…it appears that this (the situation in Reunion) is one of the VERY rare cases where culling is the most logical course of action.”

Mark Healey doesn’t hate sharks. He doesn’t think we should rid the world of them. But he understands that perhaps some need to be controlled.

Take the Bull Shark, for example. According to National Geographic “Bull Sharks are aggressive and common.” Great Whites and Tiger Sharks garner all the headlines, but it is widely believed that Bull Sharks are responsible for the majority of encounters with humans, including those on Reunion. Again, according to National Geographic, “many experts consider Bull Sharks to be the most dangerous sharks in the world”.

Bulls are highly adaptable, usually living in warm, shallow, high population coastal areas. They are also happy to live and hunt in either fresh or saltwater, in oceans, rivers, and tributaries. They will eat almost anything they see, including fish, dolphins and other sharks. In short, they are everywhere and attack everything. It is not difficult to see how a species like this might become problematic.

Around Reunion Island, we may well have inadvertently created our own aquatic Jurassic Park. You see, it’s human interference that has created the shark problem on Reunion. In 1999 the French Government banned the sale of shark meat due to potential toxins in the flesh of Bull Sharks and Tiger Sharks, effectively putting a stop to all shark fishing. Then in 2007, the creation of a marine reserve off the West coast of Reunion supplied the sharks with an all-you-can-eat buffet of fresh fish.

And here is another key qualifier when dealing with Bull Sharks: they are not currently threatened or endangered.

What we know is that sharks are a problem. Forget shark spotting, shark deterring, or shark cuddling. Let’s not pretend we can write the sharks a strongly worded letter, or sit them down and appeal to their sense of decency. If we have created problematic animal populations, then it is up to us to rectify them.

Or as Healey puts it: “when anomalies like Reunion happen it’s usually caused by inadvertent human impact. It gets so out of balance that the only way to re-correct is, unfortunately, human intervention again. They’ve tried their best to explore non-lethal ways of dealing with the problem, but obviously those haven’t worked.”



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