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 lynchpin 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 overexploitation 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