PORT CANAVERAL — At the end of each year, Capt. Joseph Smith reviews what fish most of his customers want to fish for while in Florida.
Overwhelmingly it's the shark.
"I just think people have a fascination with sharks," said Smith, a charter boat captain with the Port Canaveral-based Fin Factor Charters. "Many people have never seen one close up or next to the boat for that matter. People have a curiosity about sharks and they want to get more close up and personal with them."
Smith's comments are in line with a report released Tuesday by Oceana, the international ocean conservation organization, that shows shark-related dives in Florida generated more than $221 million in direct revenue and fueled over 3,700 jobs last year. Oceana's larger point is to dampen the market for shark fins in the United States, which the organization said was a much smaller $1.03 million enterprise in 2015.
In short, Oceana says it's more economical to view sharks than to kill them.
“Shark-based tourism, which depends on healthy shark populations, is a lucrative and rapidly growing industry in the U.S. as more and more divers recognize the beauty and awe of swimming with these magnificent creatures. In Florida alone, the revenue generated by this activity is more than 200 times that of the national fin trade," Oceana campaign director Lora Snyder said.
"However, 25% of sharks and their relatives are threatened with extinction, in part due to the global fin trade.
“In the long run, sharks in Florida simply generate more revenue alive and in the water,” she said.
Oceana said fins from as many as 73 million sharks end up in the global market every year, and more than 70% of the 14 most common shark species involved in the Hong Kong trade are considered at high or very high risk of extinction. This shark fin trade involves "finning," cutting the fins off of a shark and discarding its body at sea, often still alive. The sharks eventually bleed to death or are consumed by another sea predator.
Oceana said, while shark finning is illegal in U.S. waters, shark fins continue to be bought and sold throughout the U.S. Eleven states have bans on shark fin products, though Florida isn't one of them. Federal law prohibits finning in the United States, but fisherman can bring the entire shark to port where the fin can be removed from the shark carcass and sold.
The organization is trying to get Congress to prohibit the sale and trade of all shark fin products in the United States.
Smith said some charter boat captains hold the opinion that "the only good shark is a dead shark," but that's not his position.
The most common shark species in this area are the blacktip and spinners, he said, and he prefers them healthy and swimming in the water where people can view them.
"I like to practice more catch-and-release when it comes to sharks," Smith said. "I'm not one that wants to keep them."
Key findings from the Oceana study
In 2016, shark-encounter dives generated about $221 million in direct expenditures, which fueled 3,797 jobs and more than $116 million in wages.
• Dive operators reported that more than 32% of their dive time was dedicated to shark encounters and that nearly 20% of their dive time was specifically for targeted shark dives.
• Total economic impact for shark encounters, which includes indirect expenditures, is over $377 million.
• Targeted shark diving, which is a subset of shark encounters, generated more than $126 million, including $67 million in wages and over 2,100 jobs.