We shouldn’t have to put a dollar sign on sharks to make them worth protecting, but a new global analysis shows that if we did, they’re worth far more alive in the water than they ever could be dead in a soup bowl.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia, the University of Hawaii and the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur in Mexico put aside the value of saving sharks for the sake of conservation and marine ecosystem health to focus on their value as an economic resource.
They examined shark fisheries and shark ecotourism data from 70 sites in 45 countries, compared the economic value of sharks, both alive and dead, and found that shark ecotourism not only generates $314 million annually, but is expected to more than double in the next 20 years, which would generate an estimated $780 million annually, which they believe to be a conservative estimate.
The growing industry already draws an estimated 590,000 tourists to more than 80 locations and supports more than 10,000 jobs.
Conversely, they found that global shark fisheries generate $630 million annually and have been declining steadily over the last decade, due mainly to overfishing. The study, published in Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation, offers the first global estimate of the value of sharks when it comes to ecotourism.
“Sharks are slow to mature and produce few offspring,” said Rashid Sumaila, senior author and director of UBC’s Fisheries Centre. “The protection of live sharks, especially through dedicated protected areas, can benefit a much wider economic spectrum while helping the species recover.”
Researchers did, however, raise concerns about how sharks, other marine creatures and habitats may be affected by tourist operations, but noted that well-managed sites have generally led to improved ecosystem health and believe the industry can help raise awareness and support for conservation efforts.
An estimated 38 million sharks are currently being killed every year, leaving conservationists worried about their ability to withstand and recover from this rate of exploitation. However, there have been a number of victories in their favor with increased protections in some areas and bans on shark fins popping up around the world.
In recent years, nine countries including Palau, the Maldives, Honduras, Tokelau, the Bahamas, the Marshall Islands, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and New Caledonia have created sanctuaries by banning commercial shark fishing, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“It’s clear that sharks contribute to a healthy marine environment, which is paramount to the long-term social, cultural, and financial well-being of millions of people around the world,” said Jill Hepp, director of global shark conservation at Pew. “Many countries have a significant financial incentive to conserve sharks and the places where they live.”
Semporna, Malaysia is one of those places and was ahead of the curve on this issue, proposing a shark sanctuary in 2009, which could provide a valuable model for combining conservation efforts and economic development.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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