May 2, 2011

Reef Sharks Bring In Tourism Revenue

According to a new study released Monday by researchers in Australia, a single reef shark can be worth about two million dollars in tourism revenue over its lifetime.

The analysis from the Pacific island nation of Palau shows that sharks are worth many times more to local economics alive than dead.

"Sharks can literally be a 'million-dollar' species and a significant economic driver," said lead author Mark Meekan, a scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

"Our study shows that these animals can contribute far more as a tourism resource than as a catch target," he said in a statement.

Sharks have been the top predator in the ocean food chain for hundreds of millions of years.

However, they mature slowly and produce few offspring, which makes them vulnerable to industrial-scale fishing.

Tens of millions of coastal and open-water sharks are harvested every year to supply a burgeoning appetite for meat and especially shark-fin soup.

The researchers found the annual value to the Palau tourism industry of an individual reef shark at one of the country's major scuba-diving sites is $179,000 a year.

Shark diving accounts for about eighty percent of the country's GDP and 14 percent of its business tax base.

Palau became the first country in the world in 2009 to declare all of its territorial waters to be a shark sanctuary, followed by Honduras and The Maldives last year.

Hawaii, the territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands have all banned the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.

"Shark tourism can be a viable economic engine," Matt Rand, a shark expert at the Washington-based Pew Environment Group, which commissioned the research, said in a statement.

"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."

According to the International Union for the Conversation of Nature (IUCN), about a third of open-water sharks face extinction.

Regional studies showed that when shark populations drop, the impact cascades down through the food chain.


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