VIEWPOINT: Valuing mantas and sharks for tourism and local livelihoods

Posted on 11 March 2014    
Jackie Thomas, WWF Coral Triangle Program Leader
© Jackie Thomas
By Jackie Thomas, WWF Coral Triangle Program Leader

Amidst the disheartening news of continual decline in tuna fish stocks and the cruel practice of shark finning in the Asia Pacific region, I’m encouraged to see how a growing number of countries are using cost comparisons between the long-term value of marine creatures for tourism and local economies versus their value as a fisheries commodity to make critical ecological and economic decisions.

Just this month Indonesia has declared the world’s largest marine sanctuary to protect manta rays from being fished for their gills and the President of the small island large ocean nation of Palau has signaled his intention to close his country’s 600,000 km2 Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to commercial fishing.

Both cases make use of strong justifications: the long-term benefits of iconic species such as manta rays and sharks over their entire lifetime; and the income generated from tourists who will pay to swim and see these amazing animals in pristine waters.

Drawing power of nature

We’ve long realised the appetite of divers and nature lovers who want to experience close encounters with whales, dolphins, and marine turtles, and this interest is growing to include sharks.

Palau’s bold move to declare its expansive (EEZ) closed to commercial fishing and instead to welcome in tourists, has drawn a line in the sand, or rather on the water, when it comes to considering nature’s benefits to its local people and to the environment.

Supporting local livelihoods

Speaking recently at a UN conference in New York, Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau Jr. announced that Palau needs a healthy environment to support the livelihoods of its local people and stands to gain more in the long run from ecotourism than from fishing, which in effect means distant water fishing nations who in the past have bought access rights to fish in Palau’s waters will no longer be able to do so if the ban on commercial fishing proceeds.

I for one welcome both Indonesia’ s closure of its waters to fishing manta rays for their gills and Palau’s decision to make its territorial waters a 100% marine sanctuary. It’s what conservationists strive for in terms of increasing protection for marine ecosystems, helping to restore fish stocks, and relieving pressure on stressed coral reef ecosystems. And just as importantly it’s putting the needs of local people first.

Points to ponder for Palau

However, it the case of Palau, a small country of about 20,000 people with limited resources, such a move does raise some questions: how will this decision impact the economy of Palau in the short term when there is no income from fisheries access agreements? Will the closure of Palau’s EEZ result in overall reduced fishing effort by commercial fleets operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean or will it simply move the pressure elsewhere? And how will this country manage such a large marine sanctuary?

President Remengesau’s decisions to put the development aspirations of his people first and to acknowledge that the oceans are important to the way of life of Pacific Islanders, to their livelihoods, local economy, and culture is signaling to the rest of the Pacific and the Coral Triangle countries that there is a path towards sustainable development and management of natural resources that does put the needs of people and biodiversity in the forefront.

It won’t necessarily be all smooth sailing and there is room for organisations such as WWF to support Palau develop sustainable small-scale, locally operated fisheries for local food security and for supply to tourism operators.

These profound decisions by countries such as Indonesia and Palau deserve our support as conservation organisations and as a constituency of stakeholders concerned also about the food security and livelihoods of the peoples of the Coral Triangle and Pacific Islands.

Jackie Thomas, WWF Coral Triangle Program Leader
© Jackie Thomas Enlarge

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