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Million Dollar Sharks

I recently got back from diving in the island nation of Palau and its shark enhanced waters.   That’s right, not shark infested- shark enhanced. Sharks are to Palau what Orcas are to SeaWorld only their shark tank is the Pacific Ocean that they’re free to roam in. An economic analysis carried out by the Australian Institute for Marine Science inspired Palau to declare the world’s first shark sanctuary back in 2009.IMG_1204

Last year Palau went on to declare 80 percent of their waters – an area larger than California – a no-fishing ocean sanctuary. To enforce this marine protected area they’ve burned and confiscated foreign vessels from Vietnam and the Phillipines that were caught illegally fishing in their waters for the shark fin trade.

The original analysis of their $18-20 million dollar a year dive industry concluded that every one of their grey reef, black tip, white tip and tiger sharks is worth about what you’d pay for a quality race horse, around $2 million dollars each. But why don’t I let President Tommy Remengesau Jr. of the Republic of Palau explain it himself.

“First of all we believe every God given living thing in this earth is there for a reason so the shark is very much a part of the reef ecosystem. There is a balance that is required and sharks play a role. Aside from that we’ve done our own research and found that a live shark is worth 1.9 million dollars over its 60-70 year lifespan. As opposed to killing a shark for its fin and maybe realizing 45 dollars a kilo for shark fins and so it’s been a good partnership with the sharks so to speak. You keep them alive for the ecological balance but at the same time it brings you the dollars for your economic security.”

Plus no one has ever been killed by a shark in Palau (don’t ask about crocodiles). Actually I was admiring the predatory grace of a couple of passing reef sharks at a dive site called the Ulong Channel when a 25-pound triton triggerfish bit me in the leg. I may have been too close to its nest. Besides it always seems to me like it’s the littler guys: jellyfish, sea snakes, stonefish and urchins that you have to look out for.   I’m not saying I buy into the idea of shark as the new dolphin. I’m saying if there’s not something bigger and meaner than you are out there it’s not really a wilderness and that wilderness and its inhabitants have great value.