Sharks may get a bad rap, but as top predators, they are vital to ocean ecosystems, keeping them balanced and helping to maintain the health of coral reefs and seagrass beds.
An estimated 100 million sharks are killed in commercial fisheries each year, and because of their role in the ocean ecosystem, their loss can also lead to the loss of commercially important fish and shellfish species. But there’s another economic argument to conserving shark populations: their value to the tourism industry.
“Studies have found that sharks can often be worth more alive, in the ocean, where they can generate millions of dollars for a country’s economy over the course of its lifetime from sustainable, well-managed eco-tourism, rather than a one-time value of $100 when caught and sold at market,” said Luke Warwick, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts global shark conservation campaign.
“Protecting sharks is vital,” says Alexandra Prebble of the Guy Harvey Research Institute. “Pretty much all shark species are on the decline with some down to less than 1 percent of their historical populations … the protection of all sharks in Cayman waters is a major step.”
At the Caribbean Shark Conservation Symposium in St. Maarten last month, government representatives from across the Caribbean discussed the steps they are taking – and intend to take – to conserve shark populations.
Sharks face the threat of extinction worldwide, primarily due to overfishing and shark finning. Representatives from St. Maartan and Cayman announced the steps they have taken to prohibit commercial shark fishing in their exclusive economic zones, and Curacao and Grenada announced they would establish legislation to protect sharks in their waters.
The value of a shark
A 2013 study published in Oryx, the international journal of conservation, found that nearly 600,000 shark watchers spend more than US$314 million a year, directly supporting 10,000 jobs.
The research team, comprised of scientists from the University of British Columbia, the University of Hawaii and Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, compiled the reported economic benefits from 70 shark-watching locations in 45 countries.
In the study, “shark” refers to sharks, rays and chimaeras – all cartilaginous fish.
“Based on current observed trends, numbers of shark watches could more than double within the next 20 years, generating more than 780 USD million in tourist expenditures around the world,” the report states.
A bowl of shark fin soup – a delicacy in parts of Asia – still sells for as much as $100, and, according to the 2013 study, the “landed” value of global shark fisheries – primarily driven by demand for shark fins – is around $630 million. However, the report notes, the landed value has been declining for most of the past decade.
Additional studies highlight the value of live sharks to tourism compared to if they were caught and sold. A 2012 study of sharks around Costa Rica’s Cocos Island found that a single shark would bring $1.6 million to the country over its lifetime, in addition to supporting many jobs, because more than 85 percent of divers – who bring more than $7 million annually to the local economy – go to the island to observe the large predators, especially the schools of hammerheads. Comparatively, the study says, a caught shark is sold at the fish market for $200 on average.
Another study from the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that the value of an individual reef shark that visits shark-diving sites in Palau was $179,000 annually – $1.9 million over its lifetime – compared to the $108 it would bring if sold at market.
At the recent Caribbean Shark Symposium – co-hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the government and nature foundation of St. Maarten, and the Bahamas National Trust – Cape Eleuthra Institute researcher Edward Brooks presented the findings of an economic impact study which found that sharks generated $113 million annually in direct expenditure and value added, through tourism, to the Bahamian economy.
“The results of our study illustrate the importance of the ongoing stewardship of sharks and rays demonstrated by The Bahamian Government over the last 25 years, for which they are now reaping the economic rewards,” Brooks said in the Bahamas National Trust’s July newsletter. “However, despite the actions of The Bahamas and the other Caribbean nations who protect sharks within their waters, more work is needed on a regional basis in order to effectively manage many of these economically important species which call the entire North West Atlantic and Caribbean home.”
According to Warwick, Pew’s global shark conservation campaign aims to curtail global shark mortality by taking a three-pronged approach: working with individual countries to establish shark sanctuaries within exclusive economic zones, reducing the supply of sharks available to fisheries; working to limit and regulate the trade of shark fins and other products through international conventions and governing bodies; and working to reduce the demand for shark fin and other shark products by “showing that sharks are vulnerable marine wildlife, who are slow-growing, late to sexually mature and have few offspring, so they should not be managed like other fish.”
Since 2009, 14 shark sanctuaries have been established around the world, with seven in the Caribbean region alone.
“A shark sanctuary is a strong step, but is precautionary,” Warwick said. “It can still raise concerns among fishermen [and] among other key groups if it impacts the way they have conducted business.
“Shark sanctuaries won’t be the right management mechanism everywhere, but where sharks are highly valued for tourism, or have been heavily depleted by overfishing, they are a strong, precautionary measure governments can take to safeguard their shark populations for future generations.”
Another effort to conserve shark populations worldwide is the inclusion of several shark species in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The convention requires that any international trade in the species included be sustainable. In 2012, five shark species including porbeagle, oceanic whitetip, smooth, scalloped and great hammerhead, as well as two species of manta ray, were added to the convention, Warwick said.
In September, convention member governments will meet in Johannesburg, South Africa, and vote to add silky shark, three species of thresher shark and nine species of mobula rays to the appendix.
“A ‘yes’ vote would mean double the percentage of the global shark fin trade that is regulated,” Warwick said.