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November 3, 2011

Sounds fishy: A true tale about the economics of the environment

Sounds fishy: A true tale about the economics of the environment

There’s been a lot of talk in Washington lately about the economy and the environment.
To hear some in Congress, our economic woes today somehow mythically stem from our efforts to protect our health and our environment.
Getting power plants to reduce the emissions of toxics they spew into the air we breathe is a job-killer, they say. Keeping our waters clean, they say, will put hard-working Americans out of work.  (Never mind the REAL causes of our economic problems – namely lax regulations and poor oversight of the financial industry and lenient mortgage lending rules that led to a housing bubble and a global financial meltdown).
Last week, I got another perspective on the economics of the environment that makes a lot more sense.
It has to do with bonefish.

If you're not an angler, you might not know that a bonefish is perhaps the most sought-after saltwater game fish in the world. Bonefish aren’t big like marlin or tuna – most are shorter than a loaf of bread and weigh less than a watermelon. They aren’t even good to eat.
But because of their elusiveness and their ability to put up a fight, bonefish are an unparalleled prize for fly fishing enthusiasts. Anglers pay thousands of dollars on guides, equipment, lodging and travel in their pursuit of bonefish, mainly in Florida and especially in the Florida Keys.
Last week at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Miami, I met Dr. Jerry Ault, a University of Miami marine biologist who is a specialist on the bonefish and the bonefishing industry.
According to Ault, the bonefishing industry is worth about $1 billion to his state when you factor in tourism jobs, hotel revenues and other economic benefits. Since part of Ault’s job is to count fish, he came up with a price tag for every each and bonefish caught in Florida waters:
$75,000 per fish.
In Florida, $75,000 is a pretty good annual salary. Florida politicians would typically do anything they could to make sure they keep a $1 billion business worth $75,000 per head in their state.
Of course if Florida’s waters get more polluted, or if offshore oil drilling spoils the state’s beaches and mangroves and grass flats, bonefish – and that industry – would die.
Yet many politicians – including many of Florida’s Republicans in Congress – say the federal government needs to reduce clean water and clean air protections, not improve them. If not, they say, it will be bad for business. (Just Wednesday, Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources were trying to strike down the promising and badly needed National Ocean Policy, saying protecting our seas would hurt jobs).
Talk about a fish tale.
According to a recent study for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, outdoor recreation and nature conservation – which depends on clean air, clean water and preservation of our natural spaces - adds $1 trillion to our economy and creates 9.4 million jobs in every state in the country.
Over at Forbes, veteran environmental and business writer Todd Woody gives another example.
Woody found on a shark-tagging trip during the SEJ conference that eco-tourism shark trips can add about $73 per day per shark to the economy, compared with about $53 for a pair of shark fins in foreign markets. Given that sharks can live more than 30 years, that means one shark could be worth more than $200,000 alive versus $53 dead. (See“It’s the Green Economy Stupid (Or Why Saving Sharks Can Save Jobs).”)
Not every state in America has bonefish or sharks.
But every state has waters and woods and clean air and canyons that are an integral part of their economy.
Instead of just fixating on what the cost of improving our environment might mean to big businesses, we’d all be wise to also consider the cost to our economy if we didn’t protect those special places.

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