Updated: Feb 28
More people are now able to travel than ever before and the general public are becoming increasingly interested in seeking out natural environments to escape their radically urbanised world. Therefore, all over the world ecotourism has becoming increasingly popular over recent decades. Shark diving, including snorkelling, SCUBA diving and cage-diving with sharks, has exploded in popularity especially and shark tourism sites have popped up all over the world. So how big is the shark diving industry? What impact has it had on local communities and on global economies? And could ecotourism have the power to shift people's perceptions about the value of sharks?
Ecotourism is Big Business
Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry and new diving sites are being established regularly. It has been estimated that the annual increase in tourists visiting shark diving sites has increased by 30% over the last 20 years. By 2013 at least 590,000 people went diving with sharks annually and it is likely that this figure is much higher today. Shark ecotourism (including shark watching, snorkelling, diving, cage-diving) is available through at least 380 tour operators, in 85 different countries around the world (Gallagher & Hammerschlag, 2011; Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).
The ecotourism industry generates at least $314million USD globally every year! It is predicted that the industry will generate as much as $785 million USD annually within the next 20 years! More than 10,000 people are employed directly by shark ecotourism companies around the world and many more are employed by businesses which indirectly benefit from the presence of ecotourism in the local area, such as hotels, restaurants and shops. Shark tourism supports local communities and also generates significant capitol at the national level (Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).
Ecotourism = Conservation?
As ecotourism is so economically valuable it has significant power to shift people's perceptions about the value of sharks... If local people are able to support themselves through employment in ecotourism, rather than by fishing and selling sharks, they will start to value live sharks. This can switch the value of sharks from en extractive- to a non-consumptive resource (Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).
For instance, in South Africa, several different companies offer expeditions to cage-dive with great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias). It has been estimated that $6,074,000 USD were spent at these sites in 2011, compared to just $478,000 USD revenue from sharks which were landed in fisheries (Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).
Similarly, in French Polynesia, individual sharks have been valued at $1,200 USD per kg as an ecotourism resource, compared to only $1.5 USD when fished for meat! This could mean live sharks are far more valuable to local people than the money they can earn from fishing. Therefore, when local communities are involved in ecotourism they become agents of conservation (Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).
Many shark species, especially large, charismatic sharks targeted by ecotourism are endangered globally. Switching from fishing to ecotourism will allow shark populations in the area to begin to recover and the presence of ecotourism boats can deter poaches from entering their waters to fish. Whatsmore, if local people rely upon sharks for their livelihood, they are much more likely to support conservation strategies and be inclined to defend their sharks against poachers (Gallagher & Hammerschlag, 2011; (Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).
"Shark watching is important because it can lead to increased awareness and support for conservation"
Ecotourism Drives the Implementation of Marine Protected Areas
Ecotourism can also have conservation effects beyond the sharks themselves! It has been found that well managed ecotourism sites have improved ecosystem health and structure. This can mean that other species are given protection by default and also provide protection to extended areas of habitat which are used by the diving operators. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have even sprung up around ecotourism locations to protect the industry from fisheries (Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).
Shark watching can also be critical for generating public support for conservation. Shark watching can lead to increased awareness and support for conservation because seeing sharks in their natural habitat and offering educational experiences can alter people's perceptions about sharks. This can increase the public understanding of global shark declines and make people feel that sharks deserve protection (Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013).
Ecotourism is an excellent way to generate public interest in sharks and to inadvertently protect these animals. If you know someone who does not care about shark conservation or ethics, you can cite the economic benefits for local communities to convince them that shark-diving ecotourism is a valuable industry.
There are some very valid concerns that not all ecotourism operators are respectful of the sharks and treat them unethically (to learn more you can check out A Guilty Pleasure?). If you wold like to try shark-diving, always check your tour operator is reputable and has an excellent health and safety policy. I would thoroughly recommend you consider taking the Shark Aware course beforehand, so you can learn how to dive with sharks safely and respectfully.
Cisneros-Montemayor A, Barnes-Mauthe M, Al-Abdulrazzak D, Navarro-Holm E & Sumaila U (2013). Global economic value of shark ecotourism: implications for conservation. Oryx, 47:03, 381-388. Access online.