Scientists have calculated that for the Pacific island Palau, sharks are worth nearly 17,000 times more alive than dead.
The team, from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), took the example of a single reef shark. The value of its meat would be just $108. However the potential tourism value for the island worked out at $1.9 million over its full life.
Mark Meekan, the primary researcher, said: "Sharks can literally be a 'million-dollar' species and a significant economic driver. Because of their low rates of reproduction and late maturity, shark populations have been driven into a global decline due to fishing. Yet our study shows that these animals can contribute far more as a tourism resource than as a catch target."
By interviewing tourists, divers and tour operators the study found that tourism to see the island’s sharks brings in a massive 8% of the country’s gdp at $18 million annually, and 14% of its business tax base. It also generates more than a million dollars annually in salaries.
Globally, shark finning is estimated to have killed an average of 38 million sharks per year between 1996 and 2000. In response to this, in 2009, Palau declared its waters as a 'shark sanctuary', completely off-limits to shark fishing and finning. Many divers now come to Palau specifically to see the sharks.
Mr Meekan continued: "You've got to realise that in many places throughout the Indo-Pacific, there simply aren't sharks left on the reefs anymore. They've all gone. They've been caught, they're lost and they're not coming back. Places like Palau are left in a pristine state where you can actually go out and swim with reef sharks and get a glimpse of what a reef should actually look like and that's worth money to Palauans."
Matt Rand, director of Global Shark Conservation for the Pew Environment Group, which commissioned the research added: "Overfishing of sharks can have disastrous effects on ocean ecosystems, but this study provides a compelling case that can convince more countries to embrace these animals for their benefit to the ocean and their value to a country’s financial well-being."