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Are Shark Sanctuaries Really Safe Havens for Sharks?

Discover where all the world’s shark sanctuaries are on MPAtlas!

Shark Week brings an unprecedented amount of attention to sharks and we are excited to help highlight the importance of protecting these animals by sharing our new “Shark Sanctuaries” layer at www.MPAtlas.org. This website maps places where shark protections have been established around the world.  We invite you to explore our newest feature and learn more about global shark sanctuaries!

Whether you are a lover of sharks or would rather stay out of the water, there is no denying the pervasive buzz in the air when Shark Week rolls along. Now in its 27th year, there has been one week dedicated each summer to the mystique, history and science of these toothy predators. But while the majority of the hype still circles around sensationalized media headlines following shark attacks or beach sightings, it’s time to start highlighting the incredible importance of sharks to our oceans’ health.  Shark sanctuaries are an important piece of conserving these magnificent creatures.

As apex predators, sharks are important in maintaining healthy ecosystems.  Shark conservation efforts span the world, from bans on shark finning and outright embargos on commercial fishing to the establishment of protected areas for these animals to live undisturbed.  Declarations of shark sanctuaries, each progressively larger than the last, have increased in recent years with much fanfare.

shark-tourism
Andrés M. Cisneros-Montemayor, Michele Barnes-Mauthe, Dalal Al-Abdulrazzak, Estrella Navarro-Holm and U. Rashid Sumaila (2013). Global economic value of shark ecotourism: implications for conservation. Oryx, 47, pp 381-388. doi:10.1017/S0030605312001718.

As new sanctuaries are created, trends show an increase in shark ecotourism that is projected to generate up to $785 million in the next 20 years – surpassing the global value of fished sharks.  Since ecotourism accounts for an estimated revenue stream of over $41 billion annually, shark sanctuaries have proven to be a powerful incentive for marine conservation policies in many parts of the world.

Many of the places where these sanctuaries have been designated have economies that rely heavily on ecotourism and often highlight the allure of diving and interacting with sharks.  A 2013 study found that 590,000 shark watchers globally spent more than $341 million, directly supporting 10,000 jobs. In French Polynesia, the ecotourism value of a shark can reach $1,200 per kg, while its value when fished remains a paltry $1.5 per kg. Similarly, shark diving in Palau’s waters (designated a shark sanctuary in 2009), has generated up to $18 million a year for the nation’s coffers, while the total value of fished (i.e., dead) sharks, is a measly $108/shark.

In response to increased numbers of great white sharks off their beaches, Chatham, Massachusetts has capitalized on the growing public interest by selling everything from ‘jawsome’ apparel to “shark safari” boat trips and even selling tickets for twice-daily showings of the iconic film, Jaws at a local movie theater. Other cities, states and countries would benefit from celebrating the idea that sharks aren’t soulless predators, but critical to the health of our oceans and in dire need of protection.

While shark sanctuaries have been shown to benefit tourism, these protection measures only benefit sharks if properly enforced. In these vast, sometimes remote, swaths of ocean, enforcing these bans can be challenging. Most shark sanctuaries ban commercial shark fishing, although fishing for other species may still be allowed, including fisheries that might take sharks as bycatch.  Some smaller island nations lack the adequate resources and funding for proper enforcement. But when enforcement is present, serious implications can arise. In 2013, a Chinese fishing vessel was caught with fins and skin from 40-50 sharks illegally taken from the Marshall Islands (where commercial shark fishing was banned in 2011). The vessel was banned from fishing in the Marshall Islands and issued fines that reached $120,000.  Evaluating the management and enforcement of marine protected areas and sanctuaries using rigorous scientific criteria is the key to effective marine conservation, which is why we have been working on the Global Ocean Refuge System.

Today there are 20 shark sanctuaries in 19 countries covering more than 7 million square miles of the ocean. We hope you will share in this resurgence of enthusiasm for living sharks and visit these Shark Sanctuaries at MPAtlas.org.

Ocean Policy Fellow Lindsay Jennings contributed to this post. 

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