Sharkonomics: Why Shark Sanctuaries Make Sense

Publication: DiscoveryNews

Author: Debbie Salamone

07/14/2011 - In a special commentary for DiscoveryNews, Debbie Salamone discusses the importance of shark sanctuaries to the species and to a country's economy.

Can you guess what a shark is worth?

Australian researchers recently ran the numbers for the small Pacific island of Palau, one of the world’s top diving destinations.

The fin cut from one dead reef-dwelling shark for soup: $108.

Tourism dollars generated by that same shark left alive: $1.9 million over its lifetime.

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These figures are just one compelling reason countries such as Palau, Honduras and the Bahamas are creating sanctuaries in their waters—places where shark fishing is off-limits.

Havens for these charismatic ocean dwellers make economic and ecological sense. These top predators keep the ocean food chain in balance. But a third of all species are headed for extinction. Up to 73 million are killed each year just for their fins, which are sold mainly to Asian markets for soup. Commercial fishermen targeting other species accidentally kill untold numbers of other sharks with fishing lines up to 40 miles long studded with thousands of hooks.

Those threats make saving sharks paramount. Add in the economic rewards and more countries are finding sanctuaries to be a smart move. Palau took the lead in 2009, making its waters—the size of Texas—a haven for more than 130 species, such as gray reef and oceanic whitetip.

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In early 2010, the Maldives, an Indian Ocean island state, designated its waters as a sanctuary. Within the past month, Honduras (with Caribbean and Pacific coasts) and the Bahamas have followed, putting a total of 926,645 square miles of ocean off-limits to shark fishing. The campaign to create the Bahamian sanctuary was launched as talk surfaced about a fishing company potentially setting up a finning operation there.

The Bahamas is home to more than 40 shark species. They flourished there because of limited local fishing and a ban on the miles-long, baited fishing lines that often snare the predators by accident. During the past 20 years, shark tourism has brought in more than $800 million to the Bahamian economy, according to the Bahamas Diving Association. But until now, shark fishing was not prohibited in the nation’s waters.

The sanctuary trend marks a path toward localized conservation where global solutions have been slow to arrive. World leaders have not been able to agree on trade protections for sharks, and there are virtually no limits on fishing for them on the high seas. Although countries belonging to the United Nations agreed more than a decade ago to develop conservation plans, few have done so.

But individual countries are stepping forward to protect sharks. These nations have recognized that killing these fish isn’t sustainable and disrupts the entire marine ecosystem. Sanctuaries are the ultimate protection for a top predator that has grown a lot more vulnerable than anyone might have expected.

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