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Giant sea bass are worth more alive than dead

Giant sea bass are a flagship species for both commercial fisheries and the recreational dive industry. But where do they have the most value?

The largest bony fish found along the California coast can be almost as large as a Smart car, weigh more than 500 pounds, and grow longer than 6 feet.

Once commercially important, the fish were overfished in the 1900s, leading to the collapse of the fishery in the 1970s. The International Union for Conservation of Nature now classifies them as critically endangered.

“Analyzing commercial catch data, we found that the average annual value of the giant sea bass fishery to fishers in California was $12,600,” says lead author Ana Sofia Guerra, a graduate student in the ecology, evolution, and marine biology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“This represents less than 1 percent of the value of the non-endangered fish commercial fishers are actually targeting: white sea bass and California halibut, which are healthy and sustainable seafood options.”

Giant sea bass are to California divers what a bison sighting might be to a visitor in Yellowstone National Park.

While commercial fishers can no longer target giant sea bass, they can sell those they catch in a gill net during the capture of other species. This is why giant sea bass still appear regularly on restaurant menus and in fish markets.

Using self-reported fishery catch location data, researchers identified seasonal bycatch hotspots, where commercial fishers were not catching white sea bass or halibut but accidentally caught a lot of giant sea bass.

Managing such ocean pockets as seasonal giant sea bass sanctuaries would likely have minimal or no financial impact on California’s important fisheries but might create a lot more worth for the dive industry,” says assistant professor Douglas McCauley, coauthor of the study in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.

Although the economic value of a species generally is equated with consumption, the growth of ecotourism has expanded the range of value to include animal interaction—think photography or wildlife viewing.

“Approximately 1.38 million dives are done in California on an annual basis,” Guerra says. “Annual direct expenditures from scuba diving in California range from $161 to $323 million.”

Giant sea bass are to California divers what a bison sighting might be to a visitor in Yellowstone National Park. An iconic part of the state’s underwater wilderness, giant sea bass have a curious gentle disposition and some divers go years without seeing one.

$2.3 million

To ascertain the value of giant sea bass in the scuba community, scientists surveyed recreational divers in Southern California online and in person. They rode along on recreational dive boats to determine the worth divers place on a rare face-to-face encounter.

“Fishing and ecotourism or wildlife viewing are not mutually exclusive activities”

The researchers estimated the average annual value to be $2.3 million. The amount doesn’t represent a direct cash flow to the diving industry but rather is derived from how much value divers assign to a sighting of the gigantic fish.

The high value to divers demonstrates the potential for an industry centered on giant sea bass viewing, which could be more lucrative than their consumption potential.

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Similar values have been estimated for other charismatic ocean species. Reef sharks in Palau were found to be over 17 times more valuable alive as an ecotourism attraction in their lifetimes than dead in the market. Globally, the estimated annual economic value of manta ray tourism is $140 million, which substantially exceeds the annual $5 million value of the manta ray gill raker trade.

Viewing value in this way highlights the importance of giant sea bass beyond a fishery and stresses the importance of considering all stakeholders in policy and management plans, Guerra says.

“Fishing and ecotourism or wildlife viewing are not mutually exclusive activities. The paper highlights ways to strategically maximize the value of giant sea bass to both stakeholders.”

Source: UC Santa Barbara

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