13. Jun, 2016

The tourist value of a shark

It is a sad truth: sharks are an endangered species possibly facing extinction all over the world. The  factors responsible for their decline are bycatch and overfishing by the fishing industries, and the massive finning of sharks regulated by the Hong Kong market. Most Western countries have banned this cruel  type of shark fishing, which involves cutting the fins from live sharks and dumping their bleeding carcasses back into the sea. Some countries have banned the shark fin trade altogether, but Japan, China and many Southeast Asian nations continue to allow, if not encourage  finning.*

Fishery is based upon economic principles. Fish is consumed massively, in Asian but as well as  in Europe and the US,  so the industry provides what people want. Overfishing is often the result, especially since the fishing industry is now equipped with modern techniques and vessels that dramatically increase the catch.  Restriction (or a temporary ban) of fishery can offer some relief, but receives much resistance from the industries because it will cut down their profits. So in this sector commercial profit and conservation seem to be incompatible principles. 

Another big player in modern economy is tourism, or rather ecotourism.  But here the economical argument is used to defend and even promote conservation of the creatures living in the sea. Some quotes: ‘The tourist value of a shark, throughout its life, is $5.4 million, compared to $200 if it is fished’ (see  the picture above that shows the growth of shark ecotourism around the world. Credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts). This is a conclusion from a filmed documentary on the Website  of  in National Geographic Ocean**. The numbers  are based on  research  of various teams that compared  how much money is generated each year by fisheries that fuel the global shark fin trade, and how much is generated by ecotourism, which encompasses all forms of shark-watching activities.  Shark  ecotourism is estimated to  bring in $314 million annually worldwide, and this sector is expected to continue growing. Surges in shark tourism are particularly evident in the Caribbean and Australia. – Another quote:   ‘It clearly indicates that no matter how you slice it, that a shark is worth more in the water than the sum of its parts when it’s cut up and sold,” said Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation at the Pew Environemt Group,  which financed the study***

The economical logic is clear. Hopefully it may help to convince nations to invest more in protection of  sharks and marine life in regions that are visited by underwater observers and photographers. But when we take the argument  seriously, we should not only consider the benefits of tourists and sharks. Economy always has winners and losers. Those that defend shark protection and ecotourism are often privileged persons that can afford to spend holidays  in tropical  and exotic resorts. The other side of the coin  is the massive poverty  in the world. Restriction of overfishing and banning the shark fin trade altogether will also affect the people that carry out this trade. Many fishermen in Asian countries depend on shark finning to make a living. If it gets banned, they will become  unemployed and  probably find it  extremely hard to find a another job. For those people a 10 dollars weekly income may already suffice to maintain a family.   

There are also reasons to promote shark conservation beyond economics.  For example, overfishing affects the ecology and food chain  in the oceans of the world. Disappearance of large predators like sharks and groupers will lead to overpopulation of  other species that have lost their natural predators, and will  start overfeeding on their respective prey. A more ethical  argument  is that life on our planet and its ecosystems, beit human, animal or vegetable  has an intrinsic value and therefore deserves our respect.  The scientific study of the ecosystems, called ecology, and  their active protection  environmentalism seem natural sequels of this argument.  However, environmentalism is a principle which presents (like most isms )  practical problems  that relate to our own lifestyle and commitments. Let’s admit that many ‘environmentalists’ (including myself) are also hypocrites****. Because we often don’t  follow our own principles.  We talk in hushed tones about overpopulation and overconsumption, the dangers of carbon emission, but we keep on  driving  a car and refuse to cut flying over the world. And most important of all. What do we do to bring down the world population? So in my opinion environmentalism starts with the willingness to make sacrifices in one’s own personal world. Protection of sharks and making lovely pictures of sharks and the underwater world  are wonderful commitments, but they do not make us necessarily environmentalists. That would  require further reaching commitments.

I don’t want this article to become a snowball that gets bigger and bigger. But let me finish with making a point about the function of economy in a ‘better world’. This would be  a world with a fundamentally different conception of the role of  the  economy, than the current one with its two driving principles: profit and growth. The term economics comes from the Ancient Greek οἰκονομία from οἶκος (oikos, "house") and νόμος (nomos, "custom" or "law"), hence "rules of the house”. Good housekeeping includes defending the live conditions of men and animals. So modern economy in my utopist view would automatically  include ecology as well as environmentalism.