One of the benefits of doing fieldwork from a dive resort instead of a research station, is that I get to talk to a lot of people who aren’t scientists, but are still interested in the species I am investigating. I frequently get questions that are very relevant, but that you’d rarely get from professional researchers.
One of those returning questions is: “WHY are you doing this research?”. What is the point of spending over 3 years of your life looking at animals that most people have never heard about, let alone care about? Experienced divers are usually interested in the results, but non-divers can be baffled by the fact that I would like to know everything there is to know about animals that look like sponges and move about as much as well. What is more, I’m not just interested in their biology, I also want to know how much they are worth economically.
As divers and photographers, assigning an economic value to the species we like to observe might sound like a strange idea. Finding, watching and photographing amazing underwater life is an experience that is invaluable to many of us. It’s more than just ticking boxes, it is an experience that takes us out of everyday life and inspires us. It is something to talk about and share with fellow divers, friends and family. Putting dollar signs on that might seem like selling out, until you realise divers are not the only ones using the marine environment.
The protection of species or ecosystems frequently competes with other economic interests, such as palm oil plantations and fishing. While these are important sources of income, they can decrease the value and health of the natural environment. Determining the monetary value of dive tourism allows us to make comparisons with other industries and with different uses of marine resources. Case studies show that tourism can be a valuable, sustainable alternative to more destructive uses of the natural environment.
A good example is shark diving in Palau, which has been estimated to be worth about US$ 18 million per year. Harvesting the Palauan shark population for fishing instead would be worth less than US$ 11,000. In the light of these numbers, it is clear why it was a good idea from the Palauan government to declare the waters around Palau as shark sanctuary. When practiced in a sustainable manner, dive tourism offers an alternative income for fishing communities, while simultaneously increasing awareness in those communities and the tourists diving in the region.
As part of my PhD, I am investigating the economic value of muck dive tourism in Southeast Asia. Results will hopefully stimulate conservation and research interest in the species that are important to divers, but are often poorly understood by science. Besides interviewing divers, dive guides and dive centre owners, I have also developed an online survey to investigate which species are most popular with muck divers.
If you would like to help out (and haven’t done so already) please take the survey. It should take you no more than 5 minutes. To access the survey please follow this link. If you want to learn more about reason why we should protect endangered species and how economic value plays an important role, this article on BBC Earth is a great read. It explains better than I ever could why I am spending my days looking at critters in the sand.