How much is a shark worth? That might sound like a strange question. To conservationists, biologists or people who love the ocean, it might be impossible to quantify the value of such a magnificent creature. For fishers around the world, the answer is probably more straightforward. But one thing is now clear: sharks are worth much more alive than dead in the state of Florida.
A new, independent report commissioned by Oceana found that live sharks provide significant economic benefits to the state of Florida. Divers and tourists travel from around the world to see sharks in person, supporting a tourism industry that depends on healthy animals.
Given the global threats to survival of sharks and the key roles they play both in nature and in some coastal economies, the report commissioned by Oceana, and research by others, highlights the need for Congress to pass the proposed Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act to enact a nationwide ban on the trade of shark fins.
The bill, introduced by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Gregorio Sablan (I-MP), would remove the United States from the global shark fin market, which is driven primarily by the demand for shark fin soup in Asia.
Just like their vital role in maritime ecosystems, sharks live at the center of a financial network that generates both economic revenue and growth. But the potential value of a shark ends abruptly once it has been killed. A creature that could live for decades as a driver of economic growth is instead reduced to the sale price of its meat or fins.
As detailed in the report commissioned by Oceana, shark-driven tourism is booming in the state of Florida. Direct expenditures like boat rentals, food and lodging for shark-encounter dives totaled roughly $220 million and supported over 3,700 jobs in 2016. In contrast, the shark fishery in Florida generated only $960,000 in commercial landings in 2015. In fact, the value of live sharks in Florida significantly overshadowed the value of shark fin exports from the entire United States, which totaled little more than $1 million in 2015. In the long run, sharks can simply generate more revenue when alive and swimming in Florida waters than killed and sold for their fins.
The shark diving industry is popular in other states, including North Carolina and Rhode Island. Operators also work off the coast of California, with shark diving excursions available in San Diego and San Francisco. Ensuring healthy shark populations will help local businesses in these economies as well.
Another recent study conducted in the Bahamas demonstrated similar results: Sharks and rays helped create about 1.3 percent of Bahama's Gross Domestic Product in 2014. Driven mainly by the shark diving industry, sharks and their relatives generate a total of $113.8 million in revenues each year for the Bahamas. Similarly, Fiji and the Maldives earn $42.2 and $38.6 million per year, respectively, from their shark diving industries.
In addition to their economic value, sharks are essential for healthy oceans. While some are apex predators, all sharks play a crucial part in regulating and maintaining balance in marine ecosystems through their places in the food chain. This role is threatened, however, because sharks are all too easily overfished. Some species are slow-growing and long-lived. They reproduce late in life and have few offspring compared to other fish. These factors make these species prone to overexploitation, and populations can take a long time to recover once they've declined.
A major threat to sharks comes from the demand for shark fins, which creates an incentive for shark finning – a brutal practice where a shark's fins are cut off and its body discarded at sea, where it can drown, bleed to death or be eaten alive by other fish. Fins from as many as 73 million sharks end up in the global shark fin trade every year. And though the act of shark finning is illegal in U.S. waters, shark fins continue to be bought and sold in many parts of the United States.
Eleven U.S. states, plus the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and Guam, have already banned the sale or trade of most shark fins. But when these products are banned in one state, the market simply shifts to a new location.
In 2013, for instance, no shark fins were exported out of Savannah, Georgia. But after Texas began cracking down on the trade, the market shifted, and Savannah became the number one U.S. city for shark fin exports. The U.S. also continues to import fins, including from countries with no finning bans in place. In the end, only a national fin ban will stop the buying and selling of shark fin products throughout the U.S.
It may seem crude to ask, "How much is a shark worth?" But the importance of sharks to Florida's economy demonstrates the tangible impact these animals have in the U.S., making the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act a necessary step to protect them. Together, we can make the U.S. a global leader in shark conservation and continue to enjoy the economic and environmental value that sharks bring to our seas.