SHARKS play a big role in Fiji's economy and need to be saved from extinction to sustain it and the marine ecosystems they support.
This is the conclusion of a new analysis by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Western Australia.
The study - The Socio-Economic Value of the Shark-Diving Industry in Fiji found that shark-diving in 2010 generated $US42.2million ($F75million) into the economy and created jobs for local communities.
This revenue came from 49,000 divers or 78 per cent of the 63,000 tourists who visited Fiji to dive in that year.
The revelation comes at a time when tourists in Fiji join this month's The Great Fiji Shark Count a campaign which aims to determine the shark population with the participation of visitors, tourism operators and locals. It ends on April 30 and will be held again in November.
Researcher Helen Sykes, of Marine Ecology Consulting, Fiji, and co-author of the report, said she noticed a drop in the population because of overfishing.
"I used to see up to 15 sharks a dive before but I'd be lucky to see one or two in a week," she said during a phone briefing when the report was released yesterday.
Ms Sykes, who is also co-ordinating the shark count, said the situation was of concern.
Fiji has up to 40 species of sharks, which are the target of long-line and local fishermen who sell their fins for markets in Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan.
Rick MacPherson, the assistant director of conservation programs for the Coral Reef Alliance, which is spearheading efforts with the Pew Environment Group and the Ministry of Fisheries to turn Fiji waters into a shark sanctuary, said protecting sharks "is a win-win opportunity".
"Living sharks provide a direct and renewable-economic benefit for the people of Fiji. They also contribute to a healthy marine environment, which is paramount to Fiji's long-term social, cultural, and financial wellbeing," he said.
Pew's manager of global shark conservation, Jill Hepp, said "this study clearly shows the role sharks and tourism play in the economy of Fiji".
"Fiji has a significant financial incentive to declare a shark sanctuary and solidify its reputation as one of the top diving destinations in the world."
Manoa Rasigatale, the face of shark conservation in Fiji, said saving sharks meant saving the future.
Up to 73 million sharks are estimated to be killed worldwide each year for their fins, but this new report adds to the growing knowledge that sharks are worth much more alive than dead.
According to the report, community levies from shark-diving played a significant role in promoting the conservation of reefs through systems of traditional ownership.
Up to 17,000 shark divers were hosted on Viti Levu in 2010, generating approximately $US10.2m ($F18.2m).
Pacific Harbour accounted for 50 per cent of the shark-divers, approximately 8600 tourists, 11,000 in the Mamanuca/ Yasawa groups while Vanua Levu and Taveuni hosted about 3600.
The calculations for the economic revenue of shark-diving were made with three key pieces of information:
* Total number of divers visiting the country and the proportion of tourists engaged in dive activities from the Fiji International Visitor Survey 2009;
* All expenditures of the divers visiting Fiji primarily to engage in shark-diving activities (dedicated shark-divers) as revealed by the surveys; and
* The expenditures of divers who visited Fiji for reasons other than diving with sharks, but chose to engage in shark-diving while in the country (casual shark-divers) as revealed by our surveys. Expenditures of these divers were allocated as the proportion of their trip spent shark diving, rather than for their entire visit.
"...shark diving provides very significant economic revenue to Fiji that is likely to grow in the future if current trends in diving tourism continue and shark populations remain in place," the report said.
"Diving at Beqa Lagoon provides the centrepiece of this industry, but is by no means the major revenue earner; shark-diving occurs throughout Fiji and is a feature of the diving experience offered in all localities we visited during this study.
"The revenue from shark-diving flow through to local Fijians through the provision of salaries and service to the industry and have played a significant role in the conservation of reefs through systems of traditional ownership."
"For these reasons, shark-diving provides a model for non-extractive use of reef resources for the benefit of both local people and the reef ecosystem itself."