It’s not exactly startling news to scuba divers that sharks are worth more alive than dead and should be protected. It is news, though, that it’s now possible to pinpoint the financial value that sharks represent to their local communities. This is great news for organizations trying to convince local and national authorities to increase shark protection in their waters.
What kills sharks?
Generally speaking, one of three things kills sharks. Fishermen catch them deliberately and then sell either the entire shark for food or slice off their fins to be sold as delicacies. They often dump the rest of the mortally wounded, but living, shark back in the water. Second, fisherman haul them in as bycatch when trawling for other fish. Finally, municipalities often hunt and kill them deliberately in an effort to protect populated areas from shark attacks, as in the recent cases of Australian shark culling.
The common denominator for these three causes is monetary, either by selling the shark itself or to protect tourist income. Shark attacks near popular beaches make local authorities afraid that tourists will go elsewhere. This leads them to “take action” by killing local sharks, almost always ones that had nothing to do with the attacks. Of course, one important way to protect sharks would be to address these causes. Other ways include protecting the sharks’ habitats from pollution or overfishing. And all of these initiatives cost money.
Sharks are worth more alive than dead
But now, the proponents of shark protection have a cold cash argument. Sharks are worth more alive than dead.
A recent study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science published by the Pew Institute shows that sharks may be worth as much as $1.9 million each to the local community. Scuba tourists eager to dive with these fantastic creatures generate this income.
The Pacific island nation of Palau was the basis for the study. The country recently declared all of its waters a sanctuary where shark fishing is illegal. The researchers quantified the value in tourism from the shark-diving tourism industry. They found that each individual reef shark represented a tourism income to Palau of $179,000 a year, or $1.9 million in a typical reef shark’s lifespan. Compare this to the going market value of a dead reef shark of about $108, and the math is clear. We can use this argument with decision-makers who are not swayed by the simple moral obligation we as humans have to protect marine creatures, or by arguments about sustainability, food chains, and ecosystems.
While we cannot directly transfer the exact figures of the Palau study elsewhere, the study also points to other parts of the world where sharks, and in particularly shark-diving tourism, have a major impact on the local economy. For instance, in the Bahamas, shark-diving tourism represents an annual contribution to the local economy of some $800 million. So if you want to help save sharks, make a statement with your dollars. Spend your vacation somewhere that actively protects sharks. Let local operators and politicians know why you chose to visit their location, and help make it too expensive not to protect the sharks. Remind them by walking the walk and talking the talk that sharks are worth more alive than dead.