What could possibly make a six-year shark attack epidemic on a small island in the Indian Ocean worse?
Well, the sharks could move the carnage next door.
That's what a group of people on Mauritius fear. They're using an online petition to fight back against fish farm expansion on their coastline, which they fear could result in more shark attacks. The petition, launched on June 18th to get the attention of the Mauritius Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, seeks 100,000 signatures and currently has almost 3,500.
The petition organizers are afraid that Mauritius will suffer the same fate as La Reunion—a neighboring island nation less than 200 miles away, whose tourism industry came to a screeching halt after a surge in shark attacks that this group attributes to fish farming.
Motherboard travelled to La Reunion last year to investigate what caused the rise in shark attacks. In addition to ideal natural conditions for bull and tiger sharks on La Reunion, there was also a myriad of human-driven factors for the rise in attacks—including pollution and a depletion of the local fish stock and coral reef life. Some locals also believe that the establishment of a marine reserve and a ban on the sale of shark meat allowed the shark population to grow uninhibited.
However, the Mauritian government has already signed an agreement with GrowFish to farm cobia at four new locations along Mauritius's southwestern coast. Growfish is a fish farming company with eight operational fish farming sites in Mauritius that's also developing a part-time employment program with Mauritius's public college, the University of Mauritius.
The Mauritian residents behind the petition hope that the Mauritius Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development will reject GrowFish's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), but the deadline for the public to appeal against the EIA was yesterday, June 30th. Motherboard contacted the the country's Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and GrowFish via email, but neither responded in time for this article.
I spoke to Raphael Bechard, a Mauritius resident and operator of the Fish Mauritius Facebook page. He signed the petition because he's frustrated that the public feedback period for the EIA is only 30 days, and the EIA itself is 146 pages long.
"The people have a right to contest, but it requires more time," Bechard told me via Facebook message. "In Mauritius, politicians don't really care about the population's sentiment or opinion."
An increase in sharks is not the only concern associated with fish farms. When fish escape from their farms and breed with wild fish, it's been found to weaken the wild fish population. Chemical use in fish farms has also skyrocketed as fish become immune to more chemicals, leading to frequent violations of environmental regulations.
Mauritius may be even more vulnerable to economic devastation than La Reunion if it sees a similar rise in shark attacks. La Reunion experiences cancellation rates of about 60 percent following a shark attack, and Mauritius sees up to 1.28 million tourists in a year—more than its actual estimated population.
Bechard also said that that while Reunion has a steeper shoreline than Mauritius, which makes it more prone to shark attacks, Mauritius could still see shark attacks if fish farming expands.
"Our beaches, landscapes, and our sea are our main assets," he said to me in an email. "It only requires one person to get bitten or eaten by a shark for the industry to plummet and for Mauritius to be labeled as a risky destination."