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Why surfers should learn to coexist with sharks

Professional surfers have called for culling sharks to reduce the risk of attacks. A shark biologist explains why culling will not work and surfers should accept risk when they enter the water.

The Sierra Nevadas aren’t just for skiing. A growing number of adventure junkies have recognized the potential for surfing Tahoe’s chilly, crystal clear waters when fall storms blow in. “To be able to surf and ski in the same day in Tahoe, as we've been able to do on a handful of days this fall, is something really special,” one surfer told ESPN.

The warm and productive waters of La Réunion, an island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, are home to many types of tropical sea life, including apex predators such as sharks. Eight fatal shark attacks on humans have occurred there since 2011. After a body boarder was killed by a shark on Feb. 21, professional surfers Kelly Slater and Jeremy Flores called for aggressive shark culling around the island. The Conversation

Calls for sanctioned killing of sharks usually are the initial gut reaction from a community experiencing its first “Jaws” scare. Such sacrificial kills appear motivated in equal parts by a desire for revenge and the thought that killing sharks will ensure personal safety.

But shark scientists like me agree that there is virtually no chance to catch the highly mobile offending individual, and that there have been precious few documented cases of repeat offenders, or “rogue sharks.”

I study these attacks as curator of the International Shark Attack File (ISAF). Proposals for culling sharks reflect the anthropocentric notion that the sea belongs to humans, and we are owed complete safety when immersed. In fact, however, human actions have contributed to the shark-human dynamic around La Réunion, and culling will not substantially reduce the risk there.

Sharks are low-density, highly migratory animals that readily recolonize areas denuded of their kind, rendering any attempt to cull an ineffective strategy. And while Slater suggested that culling bull sharks around La Réunion might benefit other species, it is impossible in practice to limit shark hunts to target species. As a result, many nondangerous sharks are killed in an attempt to catch the few dangerous species.