I’ve noticed a number of positive and interesting developments as of late in the area of marine species protection, pointing to an increasing recognition, by policymakers, of the value of natural capital and associated ecosystem services, particularly the value arising from ecotourism.
In February of this year, the Government of Indonesia granted full protection to manta rays within its nearly 6 million square kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), making it the world’s largest sanctuary for manta rays. This reverses the trend of the past three decades wherein Indonesia has had the dubious distinction of being home to the world’s largest fishery for sharks and rays. Why the reversal? It seem that studies showing that the ecotourism value of a manta ray is an estimated $1 million over its lifetime, as compared to the onetime value of several hundred dollars for its gill rakers and meat played a key role in persuading policymakers to take action to protect the iconic species.
A few weeks later, the President of Palau announced that the country’s entire 200 nautical mile EEZ will be declared a marine sanctuary and closed to commercial fishing and seabed mining. This follows a move a few years earlier to declare Palau a shark sanctuary. In explaining the reasoning behind the moves Palau’s president noted that a dead shark is worth several hundred dollars, whereas a live shark is worth $1.9 million in tourism during its life span, and that his country will promote scuba diving, snorkelling and ecotourism as an alternative income to commercial fishing.
Similar calculations have been undertaken for sea turtles and sharks, all showing that the ecotourism value of protection far outweighs the value of harvesting. A study by the University of Miami estimated that a shark is worth $73 dollars a day (on average $200,000 over its lifetime) in ecotourism value as compared to the one-time value of $50 for its fins. Globally, the ecotourism value of sharks is estimated at $314 million per year; a figure that is expected to rise to $785 million per year over the next two decades. And this is without taking into account the ecological importance of sharks.
While it is becoming increasingly evident that the ecotourism value of protecting marine species far outweighs the value of exploiting them for food or other purposes, a key challenge is to ensure that the fisher communities that are involved (whether legally or otherwise) in removal of these species will benefit from their protection. It means little to a local fisher, who is barely able to sustain his/her family, that protecting a shark, or a manta, or a sea turtle will generate more in tourism dollars than what he/she will get from the shark fins or manta gill rakers or turtle shell/meat. Whether through involving these communities in ecotourism, or committing to use tax revenues from ecotourism to improve their housing, education and healthcare, it is critical to look not only at the “big picture” of valuing natural capital, but also to ensure that it results in improving lives.
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