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Sharks, as a group, are among the most threatened animals on the planet, and for many species, overfishing is the driving force pushing them toward extinction. But the growing popularity of swim-with-sharks tourism has conservation advocates proclaiming that sharks are worth more alive than dead. And as a new study lays bare, nowhere is this more true than in the Bahamas, where shark tourism contributes more than US $100-million annually to the country’s economy—more than one percent of the 327,000-person nation’s gross domestic product. But it’s a conservation win that comes with a hefty list of caveats.
In the Bahamas, many shark species that have been pushed close to extinction elsewhere have seen their populations hold, partly because the country banned longline fishing in the 1990s. Many of these sharks are species that divers can’t reliably encounter elsewhere. Tourists can swim with tiger sharks off Grand Bahama Island, great hammerheads off Bimini, and oceanic whitetips off Cat Island—all rare species that draw tens of thousands of scuba divers each year. Further contributing to the Bahamas’ reputation as a shark diving hotspot is the fact that baiting (using food as a lure) is illegal in nearby Florida.
“Our study found that the Bahamas has the largest shark diving economy in the world,” says Andrea Haas, a research associate at the Cape Eleuthera Institute and the study’s lead author. “This is exciting because it demonstrates the stream of economic benefits that the Bahamas is receiving … from conservation actions it took many years ago.”
Longline fishing has been banned in the Bahamas for decades, and all commercial shark fishing has been banned since 2011, making direct economic comparisons of shark wildlife tourism to shark fishing impossible in this case. However, the value of all Bahamian fisheries exports combined is around $80-million, less than the value of shark wildlife tourism calculated in this study.
This study found the flow of tourists from shark diving is, proportionately, even greater in the Bahamas’ hundreds of remote out islands, such as Cat Island and Bimini, than it is in the country’s major centers.
“These out islands are locations where specific charismatic shark species are targeted for exclusive scuba trips,” Haas says. “The injection of revenues into these out islands associated with this shark diving are felt much more profoundly there due to the lack of other opportunities.”
Shark tourism is bringing in more money than shark fishing overall, but for many Bahamians there’s a dark side to the switch: this money is going into different pockets. In many cases, the money is leaving the country entirely. For example, many tourists come on liveaboard dive vessels from other nations, rather than arriving on locally owned boats.
“When local communities receive financial benefits from their natural resources, they are much more likely to recognize their importance and get actively involved in their protection,” says Elena Salim Haubold, who works with the United Kingdom-based Shark Business, which seeks to help protect sharks through wildlife tourism, and was not involved in the study. “Unfortunately, this new research demonstrates that a high percentage of all money spent on shark tourism in the Bahamas ends up leaving the country via foreign-owned tour operators.”
Shark wildlife tourism is not the silver bullet as some advocates claim. Instead, “it is just one tool in a broad toolbox,” says Haas. But what the new study clearly demonstrates is that, at least for the Bahamas, shark tourism can outpace shark fishing economically. If that wealth can flow to Bahamians more reliably, it could even provide financial justification for future conservation efforts.