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Sharks and Ecotourism: Reducing shark fishing without bringing hardships for the local communities

Since the 1970s, shark numbers have declined by 71% globally and it is estimated that an additional 100 million individuals are killed by humans each year. Yet as top predators, sharks are indispensable to the balance of the marine ecosystem, and their decline is having a devastating impact on the health of the ocean and nature as a whole. Eco-tourism is a way of gradually bringing the value of sharks to nature into the wider public consciousness, while also directly influencing the amount of shark fishing by offering an alternative source of income for the fishermen who target sharks. That way, sustainable tourism serves as a dual-purpose solution by safeguarding the lives of sharks while also preventing economic hardship in communities that once relied on fishing them.

Threats to sharks

Shark populations in our oceans are declining mainly as a result of human activities, including overfishing, destruction of their natural habitat and climate change. Fishing is currently the number one threat to sharks. The demand from Asian countries for shark products: their fins, liver fat and cartilage is driving the massive shark catch. Shark fins are an essential ingredient in the soup, which is traditionally seen as a symbol of wealth and status in China, and dried shark fins are thus auctioned by the kilo in huge halls at prices that mainly benefit shark traffickers. A fisherman who takes the sharks out of the ocean will be paid only a tiny fraction of the final price for the sold shark products. And what will happen to the rest of the shark? The meat is usually sold in the country where the shark was caught for an even lower price. The smaller sharks (juveniles or adults of small species) are usually not exported at all, and just cheaply sold at a local market. Despite the low profits and hard work that is connected with shark fishing, it is often the only way the local fishermen can support their families.

At the same time, shark numbers are reaching globally critical limits that are sustainable for the health of the oceans. Sharks are apex predators, meaning that they are at the very top of the food chain with few other species. They keep the numbers of fish and other animals below them in balance and eliminate weak and sick individuals. To put it simply, when a shark disappears from the food chain, the fish populations below it become overabundant, which affects the numbers and health of other organisms below them. No one can accurately estimate what the consequences of the disappearance of sharks as a species would be overall, but what is certain is that it would mean a change in the state of the entire, already quite disturbed, ocean ecosystem. Scientists in their study in Australia have demonstrated this by asking the question: could the disappearance of large predators worsen the effects of climate change? The study was based on the fact that if tiger sharks disappeared from a given Australian bay, dugongs and turtles - not disturbed by the presence of sharks - would graze the seagrass at an unsustainable quantity and rate. Thus, this research did indeed prove that when apex predators disappear, not only does the structure of the ecosystem break down, but the rate of grazing by herbivores makes it impossible for the ecosystem to recover.

Another factor contributing to the alarming numbers of sharks in our oceans is their survival strategy. Sharks in various forms have survived on our planet for more than 420 million years. So far, their strategy has worked perfectly well for them and has helped them face many evolutionary challenges. Sharks live long, grow slowly, are large, reproduce later in life and have few young. So they invest a lot of time and energy in the offspring they bring into the world, which means that each individual has a better chance of survival. For example, a female white shark or hammerhead shark sexually matures at about 15 years of age, a female tiger shark at seven. It is not at all uncommon for sharks to be caught before they ever have a chance to reproduce, and the rate at which they are caught makes it impossible for their populations to recover at a sustainable rate.

Do regulations provide sufficient hope for sharks?

In recent years, it seems that responsible authorities and states are beginning to realize the seriousness of the situation and regulations on shark fishing are increasing. In November 2022, most sharks were added to the CITES list, the international convention that regulates international trade in endangered species. The European Commission is currently discussing a proposal by the Stop Finning EU initiative to ban the trade in shark fins in the European Union. These are very positive steps, but they are not yet binding, and a number of exceptions can be made. Moreover, the problem of fishing is very complex, and sharks are significantly affected by it even when they are not directly targeted, for example by destroying their natural habitat or by sharks being fished out as a bycatch at places where other predatory fish are targeted.

Why Ecotourism?

Ecotourism creates a great opportunity to save a significant number of sharks' lives and tourism in given areas does not necessarily have to be based on shark tourism as such. Any area that can offer rich wildlife can attract visitors. Let's look into the areas that are suitable for shark tourism (SCUBA diving or swimming with sharks) first.

Especially in recent years, shark tourism has become an important source of income for many regions around the world. The industry is growing rapidly and tourists are flowing to destinations where they can watch or dive with sharks in their natural habitat. Such tourism can benefit entire communities through increased demand for additional services such as transport, accommodation, catering and many others. There are even studies already in place to prove this. We can look at the example of the Bahamas, where about 30 years ago the government, with the help of several international organisations, implemented a shark conservation program that is now really paying off. In fact, sharks and rays bring about 114 million US dollars a year to their economy. A 2017 study by Vancouver scientists even calculated that shark diving earns 314 million USD dollars a year globally and directly creates ten thousand jobs. And that number is steadily increasing, as the popularity of the activity is certainly not declining. In economic terms, the study compares this value to the value of sharks that are commercially caught worldwide each year, and estimates this figure at 780 million US dollars per year. The value of sharks to the ocean ecosystem is of course incalculable, but it is worth noting that even economically, massive shark harvesting does not necessarily make sense.

However, shark tourism also has its downsides and potential risks, and it is important how and with what intensity it is implemented to ensure that its effects are positive and sustainable in the long term. Among the most commonly addressed issues are changes in shark behavior in areas where these predators are attracted to bait and fed. This can lead to changes in their migratory patterns, their unnatural lingering in one place and the creation of an artificial link between humans and food. Other negative effects can include the degradation of sharks' natural habitat by excessive tourist visitation, such as the destruction of coral reefs in areas popular for diving. These risks are then often a source of conflict between conservation efforts and the economic interests of the providers of the activities. Therefore, regulations on this tourism and their effective enforcement are very important to ensure maximum safety for sharks, long-term sustainability and positive benefits for tourists and local communities.

Blue Religion and Ecotouristic Project AMOARA

But shark tourism is not the only way to reduce the number of fished-out sharks. Only very specific areas can afford to bring visitors directly to the sharks - areas where the sharks occur in accessible locations, good visibility in the water, in seasons with favorable weather, etc. Many areas where significant numbers of shark fishing is happening, do not fulfill these conditions. Shark fishermen often travel many hours to the places where they catch the big sharks, to places where it's simply impossible to bring tourists in a safe way. But even these areas have so much to offer, like the place of Blue Religion's project AMOARA.

Project AMOARA is also aiming to target the problem from the side of the fishermen and offer them an alternative source of income in the form of ecotourism. The aim is not to prohibit fishing as a source of income that is often handed down from generation to generation and is a source of livelihood for the whole community, but to communicate and offer new jobs in the sustainable tourism sector. The area of San Blas where the project is being implemented is a place of abundant and diverse wildlife - you can swim with whale sharks, manta rays and dolphins here. You can watch humpback whales and their calves. San Blas is also surrounded by mangroves with many species of rare birds, iguanas and crocodiles that you can watch from the boat. Even on a global scale, such diversity of wildlife in one place is very special and this area deserves to thrive from sustainable activities. To bring tourism to this area means new job opportunities not only to the fishermen, who know the ocean better than anyone else but to the entire community. However it is extremely important to put emphasis on the sustainability of these activities so the local community is the one who benefits the most in the long term. Regulations and their enforcement, reasonable numbers of tourists, and clear rules for encounters with the animals, are all things that must be clearly defined and followed for everybody in the area and remain a crucial point in the project AMOARA.

To wrap it up, sustainable and well-implemented ecotourism represents an elegant path to bring change for shark numbers in our oceans. It addresses the need for alternative income for fishermen who would lose their only source of livelihood by simply banning the activity, it is a means of raising the standard of living of the entire community, and it helps spread awareness of the importance of healthy oceans for all. So next time, when you're going on vacation and plan to include an ocean wildlife experience, see if you can support a project like ours. You can enjoy a day on a boat with experienced fishermen, and you'll be helping the predators that are so necessary to the ocean.

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