NOUMEA, Dec 7 — Beach lovers were able to take a dip in New Caledonia’s capital Noumea for the first time in months yesterday, after the French Pacific territory installed a controversial net to keep sharks out.

The territory had banned sea bathing outright after two attacks earlier this year, one of them causing the death of an Australian tourist.

But Noumea’s busiest beach, the Baie des Citrons, was again bustling from the early morning as temperatures mounted towards 29 degrees Celsius.

“I’m really happy to see things going on at the beach again,” said Roina, manager of beachside cafe Le Babar.

“We lost a lot of customers during the swimming ban. Cars would drive right by without stopping, it was sad. Now there isn’t one free parking space.”

Noumea’s town hall has installed a 750-metre net of steel links to keep sharks out of a 10-hectare beach zone in the city centre.

A second is planned for Noumea’s Chateau-Royal beach, where the January and February shark attacks happened.

Sitting on the sand next to her flippers in the Baie des Citrons, Luce Boulier said she used to go swimming at another beach further from the city centre.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to go back there. I’m nervous. Here, I feel safe thanks to the net,” she added.

Opponents of the net include a local group of retired women known as the “Fantastic Grandmothers”, who have for years published daily counts of marine life for scientific use.

The waters in the Baie des Citrons are extraordinarily well-preserved for an urban area, harbouring corals, fish, turtles, rays and harmless leopard sharks.

Animals too large to slip between the links of the net have had to be removed.

“It’s too soon to say” what the long-term impact on biodiversity will be, Fantastic Grandmothers member Aline Guemas told AFP.

“There’s nowhere else to go for the evacuated turtles and rays. This is their living space, but our deciders couldn’t care less.”

Usually, “the turtles eat the algae that grows on the coral and without them here, the coral will eventually die,” Guemas added.

A study on the net plan had counselled against it, given the unknown environmental impact.

But the city of Noumea believes it has done all it can by moving the animals out and leaving one of the two reefs outside the protected zone. — AFP