Sharks may be more valuable in the ocean than in soup, but the message isn’t just about economics

by André Cisneros-Montemayor

During a recent study led by the Fisheries Economics Research Unit, with collaborators at universities in Hawaii and Baja California Sur, we found that shark ecotourism worldwide generates over USD$300 million per year, with projected growth to over USD$780 million per year within two decades. By comparison, global shark fisheries have a landed value of around USD$600 million per year and have been declining for the past decade or so.

The study garnered considerable attention from media outlets, from Scientific American to the Wall Street Journal, mostly focused on the magnitude of the numbers, the state of global shark populations and the current debate around Asian demand for shark fin soup. These are all key aspects of the discussion on shark conservation – and what it means for our marine ecosystems – around the world, but there is another important underlying message (skip to the last paragraph if you don’t like to be kept in suspense).

I have been asked if I truly expect people to stop eating shark fin soup in favor of going on diving trips and if that will, by itself, solve shark conservation issues. The answers are maybe, and no.

Ecotourism definitely brings people closer to the environment (something that is lacking in many urban settings) and can spark life-long changes in our perceptions and attitudes towards our role in conserving nature. In the case of shark fin soup, there are already groups working from within Chinese communities to help inform people about negative effects of unsustainable shark fishing and possible alternatives to shark fin soup (e.g., Shark Truth). These generational shifts in attitudes are an integral part of successful outcomes, particularly when they arise from the bottom-up and within the communities themselves, avoiding perceptions of ‘ecological imperialism’.

Demand drives shark fisheries, but ultimately it is fishers in communities all over the world who must make the daily choice about what to do with their natural resources, including sharks. It is here that studies such as ours (there are many other excellent ones cited in the journal article) play a key role in conveying options and highlighting the need for better stewardship, whether in tourism or fisheries. Obviously, the transfer of results like these from academic journals to fishers would not be possible without the work of established and social media, including good-ol’ word of mouth, to help us spread the news that economic benefits and conservation are not mutually exclusive.

Ecotourism can hardly be the answer for every coastal community, but there are certainly many that have successfully entered this industry. In stories of success, a common thread is a sense of ownership and kinship with natural resources (sharks, whales, reefs, etc.) and support from local governments to maintain ongoing co-management and provide necessary legal backing. Just as importantly, ecotourism must be developed with a view towards sustainable industry; shark fisheries are not inherently unsustainable, but the way we have expanded them is.

The subtle, but important conclusion of our study is that, in all economic development, we must be mindful to conserve the environment and the resources it provides. By applying to ecotourism the lessons learned after a century of unchecked fishing expansion, we hope to move towards a win-win for humans, and sharks.