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

Bob Keefe

Posted October 26, 2011

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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.Thumbnail image for bonefish-hires.jpg

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.

(Bonefish photo courtesy Dr. Jiangang Luo, RSMAS/University of Miami)

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David EffingOct 26 2011 09:41 PM

I am a fly fisherman in the Carolinas and have bonefished in Florida and the Bahamas for many years. I like the way you put a dollar amount on the money each bonefish brings in. It really puts it in a perspective everyone understands. Good job.

However, you ruined your entire article by getting political and blaming the Republicans. You could have just said "politicians" but you singled-out the GOP twice. Shame on you for that. Mr.Obama would be proud of you for carrying his water.

Next time please stick to the facts and the story and try not be so politically biased. It makes for a story EVERYONE can enjoy!


Bob KeefeOct 27 2011 01:41 PM

David - thanks for reading and for the comment.

Believe me, if it were Obama or House Democrats, I would gladly point that out also. This is not about political bias, but about fact.

Fact is, all the anti-environmental bills introduced in the House have come from Republicans, because Republicans control the House now.

And fact is, there have been more anti-environmental bills introduced/voted on in the current GOP-run House than ever before in history. See here for details of the 170 votes taken on anti-enviro measures so far by the House:

It's easy and understandable to paint Congress and politicians with one broad brush - and sometimes that's accurate. When it comes to who's driving the steamroller over health and enviro protections, and the EPA this time, it's one party - the GOP - and we'd all be misleading ourselves if we suggest otherwise.


paul chaseOct 27 2011 07:45 PM

If bonefish are that valuable a license to fish them should cost perhaps $1000.00. Why should all the rest of us pay more for everything in sight to make a few fishermen happy?

Jon AultOct 28 2011 08:50 PM


You are just another koolaid drinking liberal hack. Your article started out nicely but took a hard leftist turn at the intersection of "Blame Bush Ave" and "It's the Republican's Fault Blvd." I hope your readers don't get sucked in by bleeding heart liberals who wish to take away their rods, reels and guns.

Tomas AndersenNov 14 2011 03:24 PM

John Alut,

Reading your comment I understand that you clearly have not understood what the author is saying. He does not want to take away anyones gun,rod or reel. If anything, he wants more people to fish for bonefish with a rod. His point is that sportfishing generates more money than commercial fishing and that the degrading of these waters (pollution, overfishing etc.) will harm the economy in the long run. I'm norwegian and I got his message. Go back and finish high-school... Valuable article Bob :)

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