Shark Ecotourism
Growth of shark ecotourism University of British Columbia

Surprise! Sharks are worth more in the ocean than in a bowl of soup. While this tidbit from researchers at the University of British Columbia may not be all that shocking, the set of metrics the team came up with when comparing the profits of shark ecotourism to shark fishing is.

In the new study, published in the International Journal of Conservation, UBC researchers claim that shark ecotourism generates more than $314 million annually and is expected to double to $780 million in the next 20 years. By contrast, the global trade in shark parts was worth $630 million and has been in decline for the past decade.

“The emerging shark tourism industry attracts nearly 600,000 shark watchers annually, directly supporting 10,000 jobs,” explained Andres Cisneros-Montemayor, PhD candidate with UBC’s Fisheries Economics Research Unit and lead author of the study. “It is abundantly clear that leaving sharks in the ocean is worth much more than putting them on the menu.”

Conservationists believe that shark populations are declining globally as a result of overfishing, bycatch and life history characteristics that impede recovery. In 2009 alone, an estimated 38 million sharks were killed to feed the demand for fins, predominantly in Hong Kong and Mainland China. Many of the sharks were then thrown back into the ocean to die after their fins were removed.

“Sharks are slow to mature and produce few offspring,” Rashid Sumaila, senor author and director of UBC’s Fisheries Center, said. “The protection of live sharks, especially through dedicated protected areas, can benefit a much wider economic spectrum while helping the species recover.”

Researchers from the University of Hawaii and Universidad Autonoma de Baja California Sur in Mexico assisted the UBC team in its study of shark fisheries and shark ecotourism, pulling data from 70 sites in 45 countries across a one-year time period. They defined shark ecotourism as “any form of observing sharks in their natural habitat without intent to harm, including boats or with snorkel or scuba gear,” and found that the Caribbean alone generates $124 million from shark tourism.

Moreover, the industry supports 5,000 jobs. Over in Australia and New Zealand, 29,000 shark watchers help generate nearly $40 million in tourism expenditure each year, according to the study. Their results suggest that the continued protection of shark species could have important economic benefits not just to the traditional locations that have dominated the industry (South Africa, Australia and the Caribbean), but to smaller players as well, like the islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Nine nations and territories -- the Bahamas, the Cook Islands, Honduras, Palau, the Maldives, Tokelau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia and New Caledonia -- have all created sanctuaries prohibiting commercial shark fishing in recent years to protect the animals in their waters. Sharks are the oceans’ top predators, and their decline threatens to throw entire ecosystems out of balance.

“It’s clear that sharks contribute to a healthy marine environment, which is paramount to the long-term social, cultural and financial well-being of millions of people around the world,” explained Jill Hepp, director of global shark conservation at Pew Charitable Trusts, which supported the study. “Many countries have a significant financial incentive to conserve sharks and the places where they live.”

Yet the problem with shark populations yields different solutions for different people. Asian lovers of shark fin soup, for example, are unlikely to abandon their delicacy for more ecotourism opportunities, an activity overwhelmingly enjoyed by Westerners. Moreover, many believe initiatives are needed to convince fisherman that running boat trips to see the sharks would be more profitable than killing them for their fins.