The ocean surrounding Reunion Island has become a scary place. In the last five years, there have been seven fatal shark attacks, more per capita than anywhere else in the world. And with the death of 13-year-old rising surf star Elio Canstri last week, residents of the island are crying out for action.
Canestri died from his wounds after an 8-foot bull shark attacked him. He had been surfing with a group of friends and a surf coach, despite the ban on surfing. “Another shark attack in Reunion island this morning,” wrote Jeremy Flores via Instagram. “Thirteen-year-old Elio was one of our best-up-and coming surfers. Words can’t describe how sad and angry I am. So. young.”
A few years ago, Reunion Island banned surfing and came up with a plan to cull 90 sharks: 45 bulls and 45 tigers. Surfers were told they would be fined and risk jail if they entered the water. The plan was enacted to help save lives and keep Reunion as a popular tourist destination, as the island depends heavily on tourism.
“An immediate prohibition of swimming, surfing and bodyboarding within the coastal strip of 300 meters from shore in the department of Reunion until October 1st, 2013,” said the government in a statement. “These activities are only allowed within the shallow ‘lagoon’ and supervised areas as determined by the prefecture. Beachgoers who do not comply with the restrictions will be subject to a fine of 38 Euros ($50 U.S. dollars).”
At the time, residents of the island were divided on the idea of a culling program. In August of 2012, after a man’s hand and foot were bitten off by a shark, nearly 400 protesters demonstrated for culling. Others, however, weren’t so sure that was the answer.
In 2007, the area around Reunion was deemed a marine reserve to protect the coral reefs, hoping to entice tourism. As part of the reserve, fishing was no longer allowed. Many believe that the fishing ban is responsible for the rise in sharks, and therefore the rise in attacks.
Things have been changing in recent years, though; surfers got more involved the island’s politics, with two being elected onto the city council. Christoph Mulquin, the former coach of the surf team, and Patrick Flores, father of Jeremy Flores, also a former surf coach.
“Their goal is to secure [access to] the most famous spots in order to reintroduce nautical activities in our landscape. “During this crisis riders have gathered in several associations like OPR and PRR to find the best solution to protect people in the water,” Max “Chapo” Gateaud, a French bodyboarder, told Riptide in January. “We also ran a big study on bull sharks and tiger sharks with the IRD (Institute for Research & Development) called CHARC. After three years of work scientists submitted their report to the authorities this past December.”
According to Gateaud, the number of surfers in the water has dropped from thousands in 2011 to around 300, and although the ban on surfing is enforced, it’s hard for officials to keep up with it. “Some of us are just too passionate to give up. The bodyboarding community is still alive and we ride with masks/goggles to check what’s up underwater and watch out for each other,” he continued.
A few days after Canestri’s death, the president of the French Surfing Association spoke at a press conference on Reunion Island. “Despite the ban in place and the instructions of his coach,” he said, “how could one forbid a young boy of thirteen from pursuing his passion when he lives on an island surrounded by the ocean and these magnificent waves? Surfing is part of the DNA of Reunion and is an uncontrollable passion. You cannot ban it.”
While the government of Reunion Island has, in fact, been quite active in shark attack mitigation, some residents of the island don’t think it’s enough. Their Shark Risk Reduction Program has included culls, drum lines, shark nets, shark spotters, and underwater cameras.
“I think these new measures they’re putting in place on the island are going to be a big step forward for Reunion,” Jeremy Flores told Surfer Magazine early this month, just prior to Canestri’s death. “We’ve finally found a way to pay for them and can hopefully protect our surfers, swimmers, and tourists. Between the nets and the safety teams, I think it’s going to really help.”
But Canestri’s death seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. On Wednesday, three days after the fatal attack, Canestri’s father Giovanni joined 1,000 others at a memorial for his son on the beach. Afterwards, 200 of them went to a government office, tipping red paint on the street in a protest against the lack of government action against sharks. “I have two children left and I want them to stay alive and I want all of you here to stay alive,” Canestri’s father said in plea to keep others out of the water.
Reunion authorities were entertaining the idea of placing extra lifeguards, observation boats, and cameras at certain breaks, but according to The Daily Telegraph, Cantestri’s death has put a halt to those plans. Depending on the results of the Shark Risk Reduction Program, the ban on surfing was set to be lifted in February of next year, but with Elio Canestri’s death and residents demanding more action, Reunion Island officials may have to go back to the drawing board.