A single reef shark can contribute almost US$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.
“Sharks can literally be a ‘million-dollar’ species and a significant economic driver,” said Mark Meekan, the 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.”
The study of reef sharks at Palau’s major dive sites estimated the annual value to the tourism industry of an individual reef shark at US$179,000 or US$1.9 million over its lifetime. The shark diving industry brings approximately US$18 million annually to the Palauan economy – approximately 8% of the country’s gross domestic product. In addition, the annual tax income to Palau generated by shark diving totals approximately 14% of the country’s total business tax revenue.
Globally, up to 73 million sharks are killed every year primarily for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup, but Palau, despite its diminutive size, as become one of the key players in the fight against the industry. In 2009, Palau’s President, Johnson Toribiong declared Palauan waters to be a shark sanctuary in his address to the UN General Assembly. This measure has helped protect approximately 600,000 square kilometres of ocean. Since then, the US state of 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.
Palau also recently employed the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to use one of its vessels to patrol its territorial waters of Palau. The group will also provide support and training to local authorities.
“Shark tourism can be a viable economic engine,” said Matt Rand, Director of Global Shark Conservation for the Pew Environment Group, which commissioned the research. “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.”
Palau is located approximately 800km east of the Philippines.