Giant sea bass can grow to six feet in length and more than 500 pounds in weight. What’s the critically endangered fish’s relative value as a commercial catch versus a tourism draw? Aboard recreational dive boats surveying Southern California sport divers, UCSB researchers found quite a difference in price.
Asking divers what value they’d place on a face-to-face encounter with a “charismatic” ocean species like the largest bony fish that swims along California’s coast, Ana Sofia Guerra, a graduate student in the school’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, found an estimated average value of $2.3 million compared to a catch net worth of $12,600 to the fishery. Those millions aren’t so much an estimate of dive industry profits as they are a representation of the divers’ interest in paying for such a charter expedition, but the potential is clear.
Giant sea bass are protected, and a limited number may only be caught incidentally. But the catch occurs so often the species remains on restaurant menus, the researchers recounted in the October edition of Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. They examined self-reported fishery-location data and found that many of the giant fish were caught in seasonal hotspots by commercial fishers on the prowl for white sea bass or halibut. Coauthor Douglas McCauley of UCSB thought managing such areas as seasonal sanctuaries could boost the sport diving industry with little to no impact on the commercial fishery.
According to Guerra, California divers splash overboard approximately 1.38 million times a year. “Annual direct expenditures from scuba diving in California range from $161 million to $323 million,” she said. They can spend years underwater and never encounter the giant sea bass, known to be curious yet gentle.
By comparison, manta rays bring about $140 million in tourism globally, compared to the $5 million in the sale of manta ray gill rakers, or filaments. In Palau, snorkeling for reef sharks was 17 times more lucrative than reef shark meat. “Fishing and ecotourism or wildlife viewing are not mutually exclusive activities,” Guerra said. “The paper highlights ways to strategically maximize the value of giant sea bass to both stakeholders.”
Also coauthoring the paper were UCSB’s Milton Love and Daniel Madigan of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment.