17. Feb, 2020

Making a profit from underwater wildlife; some economic and ethical aspects.

Wildlife photography and filming offer opportunities for creative and adventurous people to work outdoors in challenging environments. Professional wildlife photographers however often have to struggle to make a living,  especially since wildlife photography is becoming an increasingly popular genre among hobbyists. The introduction of low cost, high-quality HD gear did to video what digital cameras did to photography -- open the floodgates of new talent looking to work cheap,  or even for free.

Left: A Carribean reef shark. The most profitable shark from the Bahamas.

This holds for pictures of land animals such as the  ‘Big Five’ from the African steppe, as well as the great predators of the sea like whales and sharks, that often form the primary target of UW photographers.

The market The majority of underwater photographers work as freelancers. Talented individuals may sell their work to different media, such as books, magazines, and scientific journals. In rare cases, underwater photographers may be hired as staff photographers for major publications, like diving magazines. Some of them have found clever ways to augment their income. Their work deals with resorts to build websites or develop promotional materials, they lead guided dive tours, they teach photographic seminars, they sell underwater photography gear, etc. But only a very few have succeeded in making enough money exclusively shooting underwater still photographs to pay their bills and maintain their families. Some of them have used their pictures as illustrative material in educational books focusing on topics such as marine biology,  famous marine habitats (e.g. the Red Sea, the Bahamas, Galapagos)  or technical details of  underwater photography, equipment, and Photoshop  

Impact on the public In our modern world with its rapidly declining wildlife populations,  it is worth considering to what extent the economic benefits from wildlife documentaries and books are balanced with conservation and animal welfare. Photo and film documentaries of wildlife still form an increasingly growing source of income for various media as well as (albeit more modestly)  for the individual freelance photographer. Although some of the documentaries have focused on the sensational side of encounters with allegedly dangerous animals or ‘monsters’, others have stimulated a more positive attitude towards creatures living in the wild.

Ethical considerations Showing the beauty of our wildlife may indeed serve to increase the awareness of people of the value and fragility of the natural environment, as long as it incorporates not only the beauty aspect but also the factors that threaten its preservation. An example is the massive public interest stirred by the Blue Planet documentary for plastic pollution, recycling, and environmental damage. The ‘Attenborough effect’   of  Blue Planet is indeed a perfect example of a beneficial impact of nature documentaries by its emphasis on environmental protection. Ethical principles developed in the last three decades involve that individual animals are now also afforded some level of moral consideration. Accordingly, economic incentives to protect a species and or environment became an increasingly important element in situations involving various forms of exploitation of wildlife.

Profits from tourist interactions at shark feeding sites.  An emerging concern in marine wildlife tourism is the ethics of tourism activities that involve the provisioning of animals. Operators at shark ‘safaris’  often enhance the opportunity to interact with otherwise elusive wild animals, thereby improving the economic value of the site and hopefully also providing an enhanced incentive for protection. Factors that may help to mitigate the   ‘guilty pleasure’* (some of us may experience) of commercial exploitation and baiting of wild animals during holidays or professional UW activities. In the Bahamas, for example, the great national winner in the economic picture is the Caribbean reef shark, which was responsible for generating 93.7% of the revenue generated by dedicated shark dives, making this the most economically important species of shark in The Bahamas. The high site fidelity to the Bahama reefs and limited migrations suggest that these subpopulations of C.Perezi  remain relatively well protected within the Bahamian shark sanctuary as compared with other apex predators. The second and third on the revenue list are the Great hammerhead and Tiger shark.  

 *Ziegler, J.A., Silberg, J.N., Araujo, G., Labaja, J., Ponzo, A., Rollins, R., & Dearden, P. (2018). A guilty pleasure: Tourist perspectives on the ethics of feeding whale sharks in Oslob, Philippines. Tourism Management 68: 264-274. Link to original article: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2018.04.001