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What is the Value of a Shark?

The government of the Peopleโ€™s Republic of China recently joined the groundswell of support for shark conservation.  On July 5 of this year, they announced a ban at official banquets on shark fin soup, a traditional dish that the Chinese consider a delicacy and status symbol.

This year, a growing number of high-end hotels that do business in China have removed shark fin dishes from their menus, including Peninsula hotels, Shangri-la hotels, and the Regal group. 

Largely because of its culinary popularity in China and other countries with a Chinese population, sharks are being fished at an unsustainable rate around the world.  A total of 14 species are listed as endangered and ten listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, including the smooth hammerhead, the scalloped hammerhead, and the thresher shark.  Shark populations are estimated to be down by 90%, with an estimated 38 million killed each year.
But the economics underlying this dramatic decline have begun to shift.  Up until recently, shark products brought very high prices.  For example, in 2008 officials stopped a Namibian fishing vessel that had a haul of 43 tons of sharks, four tons of shark fin, 1.8 tons of shark tail, 11.3 tons of shark liver and 20 tons of shark oil.  The total value of the catch was estimated to be $4.2 million US dollarsโ€”a large amount in a country where per capita GDP was only $4,820 in the same yearโ€”and a strong incentive for continued fishing.

Now, increasingly, studies are showing sharks are worth far more alive than dead. 

A 2006 Australian government study found that 25% of the spending by visitors to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is directly attributable to the opportunity to see sharks. And a study from James Cook University, also in Australia, found that a gray reef shark in the Maldives was worth U.S. $3,300 a year in tourism, as opposed to U.S.$32 dollars when sold by a fisherman.

In Palau, an individual reef shark was estimated to have a lifetime value of U.S.$1.9 million to the tourism industry compared with a market value of U.S.$108 if caught and killed.

The Ocean Health Index tracks the many benefits sharks provide.  As tourist attractions, sharks bring up countriesโ€™ scores in Tourism and Recreation, as well as some components in Jobs and Livelihoods.  They also contribute to Food Provision and to Natural Products, through the medicinal use of their oil. 

Perhaps most importantly, sharks enhance Biodiversity, which underlies almost all of the oceanโ€™s many benefits.  The 360 known species of sharks contribute to ocean diversity by their very existence, and also encourage diversity throughout their ecosystems.  Top predators like reef sharks, bull sharks, and great white sharks eat mid-level predators such as skates and rays.  This keeps populations of such species in check, and allows other species to flourish. 

The valuable role sharks play can be seen even more clearly in their absence.  To date, eleven species of sharks in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean have declined, allowing their prey to increase.  One of them, the cownose ray, has fed so abundantly on clams, oysters, scallops and other shellfish, that North Carolina closed its century-old bay scallop fishery in 2004.
By integrating the many different benefits that a healthy ocean can provide, the Ocean Health Index encourages us to consider the โ€œvalueโ€ of habitats and species, such as sharks, comprehensivelyโ€”from commercial and culinary to the less visible but vital benefits and ecosystem services that they provide.  Policy makers can use this perspective to evaluate decisions economically, ecologically and socially, as they examine impacts and trade-offs among the many goals they have for their countryโ€™s ocean use.