PARIS – French fishermen will be on the hunt for a vulnerable shark species off the coast of the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion soon -- and will pocket government cash for their kills after a dramatic rise in deadly attacks pushed Paris to take unprecedented measures.
Financial incentives will come into force as early as next week -- and it's provoked an outcry from animal rights groups, who call it a legalized "extermination."
The sharks to be targeted are bull sharks, a large and aggressive species common in the Indian Ocean which is widely believed to be behind several recent attacks on people.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a leading conservation group that produces the world's main list of endangered species, the so-called Red List, designates the bull shark as "near threatened," meaning it could face the threat of extinction in the near future.
From 2000 to 2010, there were no shark attacks off Reunion and no calls for culling, but the last two years have seen several deadly attacks, the most recent coming last week when a 22-year-old surfer died after a shark bit off his leg. It was the seventh attack -- and the third fatality -- since the start of last year.
The attacks have frightened many local residents into staying on dry land.
"A couple of weeks ago, I allowed my son to go swimming," said 49-year-old Philippe Nanpon, who spoke by telephone Wednesday from Saint-Paul, a district that has seen fatalities. "But now I won't let him in. Until it's over, it's not safe."
It's not yet clear how much fisherman can earn from killing sharks, and the Paris government says it will give leeway to local authorities and fishermen in setting prices.
Thierry Robert, a lawmaker from and mayor of Saint-Leu, a district whose coastal areas where an alarming number of bull sharks have been spotted in recent months, initially offered to pay fishermen euro2 ($2.46) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of dead shark. But a spokesman for the French Overseas Ministry, Olivier Nicolas, said this sum was too little.
"It's not enough as an incentive for the catching, so the state will contribute and remunerate the catchers," Nicolas said.
Although shark fishing is legal in most areas to the west of the island, bull sharks have typically not been hunted because their flesh contains a toxin and can't be eaten.
In response to the government's proposal, former actress Brigitte Bardot, who is an animal rights campaigner, wrote a letter of protest to the French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Wednesday calling the decision "blind."
"The government is in favor of an extermination, pure and simple," said Christophe Marie, a spokesman for the Brigitte Bardot Foundation. "The sea belongs first to marine life. We can't condemn sharks to death just to please surfers. It's ridiculous."
Environmental groups instead advocate measures that limit would limit the disposal of waste in coastal areas, a practice believed to lure sharks inland to feed.
Some researchers contend that the French initiative will not work as planned. Christopher Neff, a shark attack researcher at the University of Sydney, said that statistics and an ineffective decade-long cull in Hawaii prove that "shark hunts just don't work to reduce the number of attacks."
"It's understandable that people -- and politicians -- want a quick solution if there have been fatalities, like in Reunion. But it doesn't exist," he said. "If the sharks migrate that way, then a cull won't stop that."
Neff says that there has been a rise in shark attacks across the Indian Ocean in recent years, including in South Africa, the Seychelles and off the Australian coast.