A recent study conducted by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and financed by Pew Environment Group revealed the value of a reef shark in the pacific island nation of Palau to be upwards of US$1.9 million over the fish’s lifetime versus US$108 caught and sold. In 2009, the president of Palau declared its waters, 629,000 square kilometers, a shark sanctuary. Now, this remote island nation serves as a legitimate model for other countries around the world with shark diving tourism by helping them understand the benefits of conserving their shark populations from an economic standpoint. In March of 2010, the Maldives declared its exclusive economic zone a shark sanctuary as well. Could the Bahamas be next? It was recently revealed that Caribbean reef sharks of the Bahamas are worth approximately US$250,000 in revenue over the course of their lifetime as opposed to a measly US$50-$60 dollars caught and sold. The shark population, which is stable but vulnerable, represents an opportunity much like these Pacific and Indian Ocean nations to protect significant economic interests and help maintain ecological balance.
The study summary from Pew Environment Group:
A new study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science concludes that sharks are worth far more alive and swimming. In Palau, the Pacific Island nation that declared its waters a sanctuary free of shark fishing, sharks provide a lynch pin for the tourism industry.
The analysis quantified the economic benefits of Palau’s shark-diving industry and found that its worth far exceeds that of shark fishing. In fact, the estimated annual value to the tourism industry of an individual reef shark that frequents these sites was US$179,000 or US$1.9 million over its lifetime. In contrast, a single reef shark would only bring an estimated US$108.
Globally, up to 73 million sharks are killed every year primarily for their fins, which are used in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. This unsustainable rate has driven shark populations into a global decline. In general, sharks grow slowly, mature late and produce few young over long lifetimes, leaving them exceptionally vulnerable to over exploitation and slow to recover from depletion.
The Pacific Island States have been among the first to recognize the concerning global decline in sharks and took action. In 2009, President Johnson Toribiong declared Palauan waters to be a shark sanctuary in his address to the United Nations General Assembly. Since then, Hawaii, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the Marshall Islands all have prohibited the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.
The environmental rewards for protecting sharks benefit the entire ocean ecosystem. Sharks, apex predators, keep the marine food chain in balance. For example, tiger sharks have been linked to the quality of seagrass beds through their prey, dugongs and green sea turtles, which forage in these beds. Without tiger sharks to control their prey’s foraging, an important habitat is lost.
The new study confirms that shark conservation brings economic rewards which flow directly to the dive tourism industry, confirming earlier research that has showed that resort destinations, both large and small, profit from shark-diving:
Economic Benefits in Palau
Shark-diving brings approximately US$18 million annually to economy
Annual income in salaries paid by shark-diving industry is estimated US$1.2 million
Annual tax income generated was approximately 14 percent of all business tax revenue
Economic Benefits Globally
Shark-related tourism has contributed more than US$800 million to the Bahamian economy
In 2003, whale shark diving in Thailand generated an estimated US$110 million
In 2006, up to 25 percent of travel expenses from visitors to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia attributed to shark tourism
In 2010, shark and ray-diving in the Canary Islands were estimated to generate US$22 million to the local economy per year