[SOLOMON ISLANDS] Shark diving is providing a significant source of revenue for Fiji, making it a good model for non-extractive uses of reef resources, according to a report on the socio-economic value of the island's shark-diving industry.
The report, released earlier this month (17 April), found that shark diving driven by the tourism sector earned the Fijian economy more than US$42 million in 2010, of which US$4 million went to local communities in the form of salaries and local levies.
More importantly, the report noted, community levies from shark diving have significantly promoted the conservation of the island nation's coral reefs through traditional ownership.
Traditional stakeholders like fisherfolk, artisanal fishermen, and other community members benefit directly from income generated, encouraging them to participate in efforts to make these resources sustainable.
The research was conducted by the Pew Environment Group, Australian Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Western Australian and the Coral Reef Initiatives.
Shark diving has recently grown in popularity. In 2010, an estimated 49,000 divers were engaged in the activity in Fiji, representing 78 per cent of the total 63,000 divers who visited the country.
"Our survey found that sharks are one of the most significant creatures tourists wish to see when scuba diving," Mark Meekan, a researcher at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and co-author of the study, said in a press release.
"These animals are also an indicator of healthy coral reef ecosystems."
Jill Hepp, manager of global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group, which released the report, told SciDev.Net that "[sharks] are crucial to protecting the marine ecosystem and are known to eat invaders".
Vilimone Kurabui, a local fisherman on an island off Vanua Levu whose left leg was torn off by a shark during a fishing trip in the early 1980s, is part of a community that has imposed marine protected areas on their traditional fishing grounds.
"If shark diving can bring us income, that will be good for our families and our communities as we need alternative livelihood schemes or projects that will help sustain us, especially after we imposed no-take zones on our fisheries," he said.
Kurabui is hopeful the report will be used to encourage tourism in coastal communities that have yet to experience the social and economic benefits of shark diving.
Meekan said the shark diving initiative provides a global model for the sustainable use of marine ecosystems.
The model proposes the setting up of shark sanctuaries and conservation parks that open to tourism activities like shark-diving that generate income for locals. The model supports biodiversity conservation while promoting alternative sources of living such as reef conservation through systems of traditional ownership.