Shark Diving © Tasmin Eyles.

Sharks have survived multiple major extinctions and yet in the last 50 years their numbers have seen a dramatic decline. Habitat destruction, overfishing and shark finning have pushed many species close to the limits of their evolutionary tolerance, making sharks one of the most threatened species on the planet. However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon in the form of ecotourism. Seen by many as the best socio-economic solution to over-exploitation, ecotourism has the power to protect sharks while also generating livelihoods.

As concern for our environment grows and awareness about our impact on the planet increases, it is not surprising that ecotourism is generating huge revenue for a number of regions. According to the Center for Responsible Travel, the concept of ecotourism emerged in the late 1970s and became the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry by the early 1990s.

In a recent study, undertaken by Austin J. Gallagher and Dr. Neil Hammerschlag of the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami, it was discovered that sharks are not only ecologically important but economically too, and are worth a lot more alive than dead. The study valued a single live reef shark at $73 a day - over its life time this would equate to more than $200,000. Compare this to the one-off payment of $50 for a bowl of Shark Fin Soup. The monetary value speaks for itself but I’m sure many who have seen sharks in their natural habitat would agree that the experience alone is invaluable.

This study was based on data collected from 376 shark ecotourism operators based in eight geographic regions, including Oceania, The Greater Caribbean, North America, Bahamas and the Maldives. In 2010, the Maldives recognised the importance of sharks to the tourism industry and banned shark fishing in favour of shark ecotourism.

But it’s not just divers that generate money to help preserve these animals; recreational anglers also have a big impact. The Common Skate, for example is one of the UK’s most critically endangered elasmobranch species - once abundant around the UK coastline it is now only found at a fraction of its original numbers. However, the population in the Sound of Mull is a great example of how ecotourism is having a positive impact on the Common Skate’s preservation. The ‘tag and release’ angling ventures associated with the 500 or so animals in this population bring in an estimated £1m to the local economy each year, compared to the £3 per kilo that these animals are worth on the fish market.

Shark ecotourism takes many forms but the most common include; cage diving, boat trips and shark watching.

We recommend that you thoroughly research any tour operator you may be considering to determine their ethical practices before booking. Generally operators who promote conservation, science and education are more likely to offer respectful encounters. There are plenty of companies to choose from so it’s worth taking your time to find the right one for you. There are a number of online sites that offer ethical and responsible travel advice and numerous online forums for reviewing and rating destinations.

Be aware of rampant, ill-conceived and greed-filled development in the name of ecotourism, such as destroying mangroves (aka prime fish, shark, reptile and bird habitat) to build marinas and hotels to house divers. This is incredibly destructive and only economically viable in the short term.

With the appropriate education and by following respectful codes of practice shark ecotourism is a powerful and empowering tool.