06/01/2013 09:48 EDT | Updated 08/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Sharks worth more in ocean than in soup, B.C. study finds

Researchers at the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre say protecting sharks would lead to a big economic payoff.

A study published Thursday in Oryx, The International Journal of Conservation, says shark fisheries are declining, mostly due to overfishing, but the industry around shark watchers is thriving.

Rashid Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Centre and the study's senior author, says shark tourism is making big gains, and within the next two decades, its economic importance is expected to surpass that of shark fisheries in terms of income.

"Economics and conservation can work together. If you conserve your resources properly, you make them sustainable, you have a chance of actually making money and employing people, and this is really a very clear example of that," he said.

The research team examined fisheries and ecotourism data from 70 sites in 45 countries, and found that the landed value of global shark fisheries, which have been in decline for the past decade, is currently $630 million USD.

In contrast, shark ecotourism currently generates more than $314 million annually,and is expected to more than double to $780 million in the next 20 years.

Tens of millions killed every year

The study's lead author, PhD candidate Andres Cisneros-Montemayor, says tourism could help end the controversial practice of shark finning, which resulted in the killing of an estimated 38 million sharks in 2009.

"People have realized that they can make a lot of money off of this [tourism] industry and, in the end, it creates a win-win for the environment and the local community," he said.

Cisneros says because of overfishing and challenges within shark populations — sharks are slow to mature and produce few offspring — the global shark populations are crashing.

A growth in shark-watching, however, could be the catalyst that could help some of the populations recover.

"From the bottom up, they start petitioning people to get more shark protection areas in-place, and that in turn helps conserve shark populations and the ecosystem," he said.

He suggested that dedicated protection areas for sharks and other marine populations could help vulnerable species bounce back, which still generating economic benefits for local communities.