Thomas Vignaud how to be reconciled with sharks?
Hello, can you introduce yourself?
It is always difficult to present oneself, but to situate myself in relation to the context:
I spent a lot of time at sea, especially when I was between 7 and 11. I was in the water most of the time watching, learning, understanding, all the life that abounds in marine ecosystems.
It was at this time that I met my first sharks, made my first bottle dives. At 9 years, I was proud to go down to 10 meters without having learned any breathing techniques!
I also spent a lot of time fishing, then hunting, with a 70 rifle cm, proud of my first "trophy" at 11 years, a barracuda. Fishing and hunting have taught me a lot about the sea and the fish, but also about the conservation and the impact that humans can have on the oceans.
I then studied in biology / marine ecology while passing my diving and other degrees to become a monitor (apnea also).
I completed my training with other certificates such as rebreathers, or "class IIB" (professional diving). I was also interested in underwater photography and had the chance to win many awards including a Golden Diver in Antibes in 2008.
In parallel, I continued my studies with a Master, then a thesis, and I worked with sharks since 2007. They have imposed themselves naturally as a passion.
I have also worked on other subjects and other missions but always in the marine environment. In 2014, I organized the “Eqalusuaq” expedition in Alaska with 3 friends, and thanks to many sponsors and partners.
This documentary has won several awards in the European "Nature" festivals thanks to the talent of the directors. The idea was to give the taste of adventure to the youngest, or the most timid. Nothing like going into the depths of Nature to respect and come out transformed.
Afterwards, I mainly worked in Fiji on sharks, in a context more oriented eco-tourism, with always many ideas and projects in mind! I am fortunate to have a point of view both academic but also on the ground, so a particular understanding of the environment. This allows me to see the limits of both, and the need to reconcile them!
There is a lot of talk around sharks today in the press. Can you tell us more?
I think we must maintain and strengthen all the communication and awareness that exist around the “shark” problem, but also that some of its campaigns have little effect, because they communicate to people who are already convinced. If an NGO publishes a beautiful visual on the internet that talks about the problem, it only affects the 0.01% of the population who are already interested in the problem.
We need to go deeper both at the governmental level and at the level of the populations who do not have access to this information.
To get there, one of the options is to use celebrities, artists, or use brands, as some already do. We must also be vigilant with respect to certain associations that use donations in operating costs rather than in concrete actions. From my experience, I think it's better to work locally than globally, that's where the change comes from.
To come back to the sharks, yes, they are in danger in many countries, yes, we must act! France, for example, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of sharks every year via sponsors with our taxes: millions of euros are invested by the state in shark fishing, directly or indirectly (a lot of fishing accessory), not to mention the laissez-faire marketing.
I like this metaphor a lot: we get a spaceship that contains technologies, drugs, knowledge of a distant alien civilization, like a gift.
What do we do? We choose to melt everything to recover the metal and make forks. This is what we witness when we destroy biodiversity, especially sharks.
This madness must stop as soon as possible, and it is up to the governments to be firm on the subject, without forgetting to help in the transition. It is here that (true) associations and foundations can bring a plus: communication, support, expertise ...
Can you to say more about your work in Fiji?
With pleasure ! The basic question is simple: What is the most effective way to put in place a strong program with rapid positive effects on the ecosystem (including sharks) that is sustainable (including without subsidies), positive for local communities , government, tourism (hotels, diving clubs, etc ...) and scientific research.
What can be done here and now to have maximum positive impacts on marine life, with a benefit for everyone and a minimal investment, and can generate its own money.
In Fiji, the response came fairly quickly. I used a tool that is often scary (out of ignorance), but which can be formidable: “Shark-Feeding”, in French “nourissage de requins”. Controversial practice! 20 years ago, I would have been against: we don't know enough to take risks, we have to think about the precautionary principle, what is the impact on the ecosystem, etc ...
Except that, in 2019, we know enough to be able to do it well. It's like a scalpel: if you give it to a child, it's dangerous. If given to a surgeon, he will save hundreds of lives with it.
So I set up the program in 2015, which proved to be a great success at all levels: it's profitable for investors, it's good for sharks and the ecosystem (to a degree that I had never observed before!), and the gain for the local economy and for science is far from negligible.
Everyone finds advantages there, and everyone learns to respect the sea. We have worked on the establishment of protected areas and many divers speak of an unforgettable experience, thus becoming great ambassadors.
Other hotels, seeing the success of ecotourism, have also launched conservation programs. These new investments and actions on a larger scale are a nice "indirect" effect that I did not really foresee.
And then, I reinforced my understanding of sharks, in particular on the delicacy of their personalities, their social behaviors, their psychology, their mode of operation ... I also put in place certain methods, invented or improved new tools for work better safely.
What's great about this program is that we get into a virtuous circle and everyone wins! Beyond these many positive impacts, there is also, for example, a reduction in the risk of shark attacks in the region. I tried to make a small summary of impacts in French here.
With which species do you work? Have you already had accidents?
I work mainly with bulldog sharks (10-20 per day) but also tiger sharks and lemon sharks. The other species (11 in total on the Fiji site) are too infrequent or do not really interact because the mastodons often take up all the space - except for a very reckless male nurse shark.
Several times, I found myself having to keep it with my legs to have my hands free because it bothered me in my work. He regularly swam in the middle of the bulldogs that would have made a mouthful. Bulldogs also have a form of respect for life: when the Nanny is eating, the bulldogs try to find an angle to take the food without risking injury, even losing. To observe it completely changes the image of the blind predator that is the shark for many people.
The only accident was to cut myself with a knife while feeding! An ugly, deep wound, with cut tendons, and heavy bleeding that spilled and came out in regular clouds, while 15 sharks swarmed around me. Their reaction? Back up when they felt there was something wrong.
No problem. It should be understood that sharks have super-developed senses, and that they are adept at differentiating between the smell of different species of dead fish. For them, human blood, which is not “fatty” enough, is of no interest, especially if they smell the odor of tuna nearby.
And then, again, these sharks are our working partners. These have learned to put the man in the box "allies" and do not attack a man because they are able to identify them and know that we are not prey. It's different with wilder sharks that sometimes have more difficulty finding food when they reach adulthood and need more food, with larger prey.
They start looking in new areas (eg enter a lagoon, or come into the waves) and "test" new types of prey (for example, a surfer, a swimmer ...).
It's still very rare and it only happens with some sharks with a particular personality, but it can happen. Sharks fed and "educated" can come on site and have food if needed. No walk in the lagoon, no risk taking on new types of prey. Moreover, they already know the man, whom they put in the box "allies" and not prey - as for a Remora or a cleaner labre. This does not exclude the risk to 100%, but if you work on a smart program with rigor and discipline, the risk of attacks in the region actually decreases, even at great distance as the different sharks of the area are "educated".
Moreover, just look at the statistics: these are the areas where there is feeding that there are the least attacks despite the fact that feeding is too often done "cowboy" (so poorly done!) and despite the much higher number of human-shark interactions in these places.
The rare cases of attacks are provoked, often by a "feeder" who takes unnecessary risks, for example that of wanting to play the hero in front of the camera or the diver of the day ... I am also against hand-feeding, to leaves under certain very specific and exceptional conditions, for a specific, scientific or educational (shark) goal, but far from the cameras.
All that makes me think of Reunion ...
Thorny subject! In view of the recent attacks, there is still no solution.
One of the possible ways to reduce the risk of attacks is to reconsider the problem in its entirety and almost everything from scratch. With the new scientific data and the experience gained, we could think about a new program.
Some actions undertaken in the past have been the consequences of emotional reactions, so not necessarily adequate, for lack of information.
The overall situation reminds me of the history of countries that prohibit the marketing of sharks by wanting to do well. The boats still catch as many sharks, except that instead of filling their holds with and returning to port, they throw them dead into the water and continue to fish, thus killing more sharks. This has an opposite effect if it is not accompanied by other thoughtful actions.
I think that the intentions were good in Reunion, but that the effect was perverted by the force of things. Today, it has deteriorated and turned into sterile battles, it's a shame!
Most actors are not always competent to understand the depth of the problem. I'm going to exaggerate a bit, but do you imagine the disaster if all the math teachers and mechanics in the area come to NASA to resume the space program?
Having 10.000 dives, having surfed or hunted for 40 years in Reunion, having seen hundreds of sharks in your life or even all that accumulated is not enough, far from it. It has almost nothing to do in fact, it is irrelevant (in English one would say "irrelevant"). The problem is much more complex and requires a real understanding of sharks, their way of reacting, their psychology, their habits. All this cannot be learned from books. Local expertise is important but should not supplant real ethological expertise.
In order to be able to speak more precisely, there should also be more transparency about what has been done. Where is the action plan clear, justified, validated by the experts? Millions of euros are invested to solve this problem without real transparency. As often, we manage a problem through subsidies that are not always well used and a policy of emotion and communication in the short term.
In short, there are many unknowns and it is a complex problem.
Will a program similar to the one you developed in Fiji work?
Probably. The countries that would benefit the most in the area would be Mauritius and Seychelles. In Reunion it is more difficult because of the geography, but possible. If this is envisaged, it would be necessary above all to set up an adapted action plan with competent people. Sometimes people think they can work with sharks, then give up when they realize that they do not control anything and they are scared! Sometimes after a bite ... It can not be improvised. It is essential that this action plan be conducted by experienced people, who have already set up this type of project and have already worked with wild bulldog sharks. We are really not many!
But the effects are simple:
- Sharks are fed so they move away from the beaches and no longer venture into shallower areas. There is also less risk that they will attack new types of prey since they are no longer in food shortages.
- We teach them that the man (and the surf in the case of Reunion Island) can not be eaten!
- We obtain a database with their individual personalities, even if it means removing sharks deemed to be “at risk”.
This does not exclude other actions in parallel, such as recent tests for the use of kelp forest nets, water pollution control, monitoring.
There are many things to do and test or continue, but in a few years there is no reason (except sabotage!) So that the risk of attack can not fall below the natural threshold.
And I repeat myself: for that it must be done WELL! Many "shark dive" models from other countries are not suitable for Reunion.
A tip if you find yourself diving in front of a bulldog shark?
If you can see it, it's probably safe, so enjoy!
If you are not confident: stay close to the bottom, keep an eye on it, do not be hypnotized by a shark at the risk of not seeing the other or forgetting your bearings, your air, your partner . If he comes too close, face him even if it means going towards him brutally. Finally, there is a sound that can be made with the mouth underwater that effectively scares them away, but difficult to share in writing! Come join me on the expedition shark college with SeaDoors in the Philippines and I will teach you with many other things!
One last message?
Yes, to politicians, men and women of power or who have access to wealth. You can make a difference easily thanks to your unique status.
We are talking a lot about the loss of Biodiversity at the moment, it is probably the moment to act, to do good for everyone! All it takes is a local project, a law, a reorientation, and you can be heroes. Not the movies, but the ones that really exist. Be one of those.