Turning the Tide on Sharkonomics with Shark Tourism and Shark Media

SOCAP Global August 27, 2013

Photographer Jay Castellano, Tiger Beach, Bahamas 2013


Contributed by Alison Loomis
How can the marketplace help sharks become worth more alive than on the menu? What are the sharkonomics success stories? How can we improve and scale best- practices that support shark protection?
In recent years, struggling shark populations are making a slight comeback. Economic incentives driven by shark tourism and the popularization of shark media are helping sharks become more valuable alive than as shark fin soup, whale shark liver oil, shark cartilage or white shark trophies.
Working to promote shark consumer awareness, shark naturalism, and support for sustainable fisheries is vital. Increasing the number of environmentally aware tourists willing to pay to enjoy healthy ecosystems and shark populations brings new economic options to coastal communities and both local and national governments. As seen with the onset of whale watching and decreased demand for whale products, shark watching is the next new trendPositive feedback loops are stemming from a growing population of visitors compelled to see live sharks and buy shark conservation-inspired products.
A study from the University of British Columbia (UBC), published this summer in Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation, shows that shark ecotourism currently generates more than US$314 million annually worldwide and is expected to more than double to US$780 million in the next 20 years (see graph). In comparison, global shark fisheries are in decline and currently valued at US$630 million.
Sharks are keystone apex predators that have been keeping ocean food webs in balance for 450 million years. As a direct result of the largely unregulated shark fin fisheries and long-line bycatch, an estimated 1/3 of open-ocean shark species are now faced with extinction.  Since all life is interconnected in the ocean, widespread shark depletion contributes to the loss of commercially important fish and shellfish species down the food chain, including key fisheries, such as tuna, that maintain the health of coral reefs and sea grass ecosystems.
So just how is the emerging shark tourism industry and shark media making a difference in sharkonomics?
One way is the creation of marine sanctuaries that replace economic royalties gained by shark-finning with jobs and revenue that support live sharks.  Countries like Fiji and Palau are at the forefront of the evolution of commercial shark diving by creating shark sanctuaries. The first victory was in 2009, when Palau’s President banned shark finning and announced a universal 230,000 sq. mile Exclusive Economic Zone Shark Park in its waters. Nearly 600,000 annual shark watchers are creating tens of thousands of jobs across the globe.  In the Caribbean, shark tourism generates almost $124 million in tourism dollars annually, supporting more than 5,000 jobs (estimated by UBC, the University of Hawaii and Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur in Mexico).
Shark diving operations such as Beqa Adventure Divers in Fiji and Manta Bay Resort in Yap are setting the bar for safety, sustainability, and education practices in shark tourism. Beqa Adventure Divers won a national award for pairing tourism with research, conservation, and cooperation with local communities at the grass roots level.
Shark media also plays an important role in encouraging public appreciation and conservation of sharks.   Through media campaigns, celebrities such as basketball star Yao Ming empower and educate Asian audiences on the real price and myths of shark fin soup. The Discovery Channel features Shark Week, which is an annual week-long series of television programs devoted to sharks. Shark Week is broadcasted in 72 countries and heavily promoted on social networks.
Growth in shark tourism and shark media attracts social entrepreneurs to preserve ocean biodiversity and empower coastal communities and recreationists. For instance, having become inspired by the documentary Sharkwater, Kathy Xu, aims to develop a successful eco-tourism business for the fishermen in Tanjung Luar, a village off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia, to steer them away from shark fishing.
Bastiaan Vermonden founded DiveSelector.com  to stimulate incentives for coastal businesses and governments to protect their local marine resources.  The developing website features interactive maps based on diver survey results which allow scuba enthusiasts to choose dive destinations with the highest biodiversity and best marine life.
Ocean-based recreation as an ecosystem service can be used to compare price structures of fish left in the ocean to those taken out of the ocean. According to Pew Charitable Trust and Discovery News, the fin cut from one dead reef-dwelling shark for soup is estimated at $108 on average. Tourism dollars generated by that same shark left alive is $1.9 million over its lifetime.
Although shark tourism and media has positive effects on local economies, conservation, and regional fisheries, there is undeniable room for improvement.
Not all shark watching operations incorporate science-based management and interpretation into their ‘business only’ operations. Noise pollution and the practice of feeding sharks or chumming the water to attract them have been questioned because of possible effects on shark behavior and safety of shark watchers. Better practices of managing ecotourism sites can also better ensure sustained benefits of the site and shark conservation.
Sharks in the media limelight have also been questioned. For instance, Shark Week 2013 began on Sunday, August 4th with falsified information—a show called Megalodon, a fictitious documentary-style film which hypothesized the Megalodon shark existing in present times. Upwell, a hip ocean conservation communications group, wittingly blogged about Shark Week’s use of scientific fact vs. terror fiction (check out Upwell’s Shark Week Cheat Sheet). Upwell argues that whether or not the media emphasis on shark terror and fakery impacts shark conservation efforts, one thing is certain: the shark conversation is growing.
By collectively building on successful innovations in sharkonomics, we can count on seeing healthier shark populations in the future.
Please join me at SOCAP13’s ocean breakfast talks to continue the conversation!
Join the SOCAP Newsletter!