The Cook and Marshall Islands are putting a stop to shark finning — and gaining major tourism dollars.
by Tyghe Trimble
In October, Jurelang Zedkaia, president of the Pacific’s Marshall Islands, declared 769,000 square miles of water surrounding his nation off-limits to commercial fishing, creating the world’s largest shark sanctuary. The move was a major victory for champions of the ancient fish, according to Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation for Pew Environment Group. But altruism isn’t the only driving force behind the worldwide push for preservation.
Shark tourism is a big moneymaker for many island nations — including Palau, the Maldives, and the Bahamas, where shark diving alone is worth $78 million a year. In Palau, the industry brings $18 million annually — one-tenth the nation’s GDP.
Driven by dollars or compassion, the timing of the movement couldn’t be more critical: Half of the 400 known shark species are now endangered. Each year, fishermen kill 73 million sharks just for their fins, which are used primarily to make soup. (Dried fin sells for up to $300 per pound on the black market, while the rest of the shark can bring as little as $65.)
The relatively unregulated waters of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific are a hot zone for this kind of fishing. “The locals have noticed the loss in sharks,” says Jess Cramp of the Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative (PICI). Of the 18 species swimming near the Cooks, Cramp says, six — including pelagic thresher and shortfin mako — are now at risk.
To prevent further depletion of the population, PICI has proposed the designation of a new, 888,000-square-mile sanctuary. The preserve would be the largest sanctuary on the planet and represent a 48 percent increase in the global area of protected waters — and a potential financial boon for the Cook Islands, 60 percent of whose economy is tourism.
“Like wolves in Yellowstone, sharks help balance the ecosystem,” says Rand. “If you’re a nation that depends on a healthy ecosystem, you take that information pretty seriously.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 / January 2012 issue of Men’s Journal.