You’ve got to admire Kelly Slater for speaking his mind on the big issues. Not many athletes do – either wary of upsetting the apple cart or just not that informed or interested. As the most famous and successful surfer of all time Kelly knows his words have reach and impact. And he genuinely, sincerely cares. A regular supporter of environmental issues he recently used an Outerknown campaign to target environmental apathy and ignorance. “It’s not OK to remain unaware. It’s not OK to ruin the natural world,” he implored. 

So it came as a surprise when he publically put his support behind a cull of sharks on Reunion Island, less than a week later. The decision came on the back of the eighth fatal shark attack on the island since 2011. The victim was a friend of Jeremy Flores and Kelly posted this on Flores’ Facebook tribute. “Honestly, I won’t be popular for saying this but there needs to be a serious cull on Reunion and it should happen every day… If the whole world had these rates of attack nobody would use the ocean and literally millions of people would be dying like this.”

The stats are deeply troubling. Reunion Island has had 20 shark attacks, eight of them fatal, since 2001. The situation is so sketchy surfing or swimming has been banned at many beaches and reef breaks while the government attempt to make the ocean safer. Kelly added some nuance to his initial statement in an Instagram post and invited his 1.9 million followers to comment, promising he would read every post. Over 4000 people took him up on his offer (they’re still at it today).

More than a few were aghast and disappointed and – the internet being the internet -  there was a slab of gratuitous hate. Kelly also received praise for addressing a difficult issue and some support for the cull but the majority of commentators were opposed. Responding to one critic Kelly appeared to be backpedaling on his initial stance. “It’s become more and more clear to me that my thoughts are feelings of grief for friends losing friends. Difficult to process publically…” 

A few years ago Kelly weighed in on the shark debate in WA with comments that appeared to be strongly in support of shark preservation. He even proclaimed that it would be an honor to be eaten by a Noah. It appears he has since changed his mind and perhaps changed its back again. No doubt some will be quick to denigrate Kelly over his apparently conflicting statements but perhaps the bigger lesson here is one of tolerance. When human lives are being lost, it’s only natural to get emotional and want to find a solution.  We shouldn’t rush to inflexible positions but examine all possible solutions dispassionately.