Forget about the spurious benefits of eating shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy that is said to be responsible for the needless destruction of some 73 million sharks a year. In Palau, the first country in the world to proclaim a shark sanctuary, the sharks that frequent the Pacific island country’s reefs generate enormous financial benefits.
A single reef shark can contribute almost U.S.$2 million in its lifetime to the economy of Palau, according to a new study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the University of Western Australia.
“The analysis quantified the economic benefits of the shark-diving industry to the Pacific island nation and found that its value far exceeded that of shark fishing,” Pew said in a news statement about the research. Pew Environment Group — a Washington-based group that works to advance scientific understanding of the causes and consequences of environmental problems, design innovative policy solutions to these problems and mobilize public support for their implementation — commissioned the study.
The research focused on an estimated 100 reef sharks that frequent the five major dive sites in Palau. The study did not take into account the sharks in Palau waters that do not regularly visit the dive sites.
“Sharks can literally be a ‘million-dollar’ species and a significant economic driver,” said Mark Meekan, principal research scientist at AIMS. “Because of their low rates of reproduction and late maturity, shark populations have been driven into a global decline due to fishing. Yet our study shows that these animals can contribute far more as a tourism resource than as a catch target.”
Sharks are the top predators that keep the ecosystem healthy, and on top of that they bring much more money through tourism than fishing, said marine becologist Enric Sala, a National Geographic Fellow. Sala is actively engaged in research, exploration, communication, and application of scientific knowledge related to the conservation of marine ecosystems. “If everyone is worried about the economy, it makes much more sense to keep sharks in the water than killing them. They are the sharks with the golden eggs,” he said in an email to National Geographic News Watch.
Findings from the AIMS study, which looked at the reef sharks observed at Palau’s major dive sites, include:
- The estimated annual value to the tourism industry of an individual reef shark that frequents these sites was U.S.$179,000, or US$1.9 million over its lifetime;
- Shark diving brings approximately US$18 million annually to the Palauan economy, approximately eight percent of the country’s gross domestic product;
- The annual income in salaries paid by the shark-diving industry was an estimated US$1.2 million; and
- The annual tax income to Palau generated by shark diving was approximately 14 percent of the country’s business tax revenue.
“Globally, up to 73 million sharks are killed every year primarily for their fins, which are used in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup,” Pews Environment Group said in its statement. “The Pacific Island States have been among the first to recognize the danger of this unsustainable rate of consumption. In 2009, Palau President Johnson Toribiong declared Palauan waters to be a shark sanctuary in his address to the United Nations General Assembly. Since then, the U.S. state of Hawaii, the territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands all banned the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.”
“Shark tourism can be a viable economic engine,” said Matt Rand, director of Global Shark Conservation for the Pew Environment Group. “Overfishing of sharks can have disastrous effects on ocean ecosystems, but this study provides a compelling case that can convince more countries to embrace these animals for their benefit to the ocean and their value to a country’s financial well-being.”
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.