Gulf Coast Economics: Fish and Wildlife Dollars Hammer Development

Conservationists fighting to protect fish and wildlife habitat usually are up against the same opponent: Business development.

In the Midwest, that can mean agriculture. In the Northeast, it’s often sprawling business parks.

But down on the Gulf Coast, where protecting wetlands is critical for fisheries, the other side is typically represented by oil and gas drillers or waterfront residential developments that turn marshes into finger canals with boat docks.

And the argument that city and state governments seem to listen to is always the same: oil, gas, and housing means jobs and tax dollars. The conservationists want to lock away these resources so they can play with them.

Well, conservationists now beat developers with their own argument.

A report released Tuesday shows that wildlife-base tourism in the Gulf Coast is responsible for 2.6 million jobs in the region – five times the number of jobs generated by the region’s three next resource-based industries, commercial fishing, oil and gas, and shipping.

“Wildlife Tourism and the Gulf Coast Economy” also concluded this about the endangered Gulf Coast ecosystem:

– 20-36 percent of all private sector employment is tourism-related in coastal counties.
– Wildlife tourism, which includes wildlife watching, recreational fishing, and hunting, generates more than $19 billion in annual spending.
– Wildlife tourism generates $5.3 billion annually in federal, state and local tax revenues, divided roughly equally between local and state tax revenues and federal revenues.
– In 2011, Gulf Coast state and local governments received $2.5 billion and the federal government $2.8 billion from wildlife tourism.
– Recreational fishing generates the highest amount of tax revenue at $2.2 billion, followed by $1.9 billion from wildlife watching and $1.2 billion from hunting.
– Wildlife tourism attracts 20 million participants annually across the five Gulf Coast states. The wildlife tourism industry consists not only of wildlife guide businesses that directly serve wildlife tourists, but also the lodging and dining establishments where they eat and sleep.
– It has brought about the creation of business networks that depend on each other for referrals. In a survey of over 500 guide and outfitter businesses, about 40 percent of respondents said clients ask them for hotel recommendations and 55 percent said clients request restaurant recommendations.
– Likewise, more than 60 percent of guide businesses receive clients based on recommendations from hotels and restaurants.
– Guide and outfitting operations represent a strong network of small businesses. More than 86 percent of these businesses have one to five employees, and nearly 60 percent host more than 200 visitors per year, with many hosting several thousand.

All of this economic activity depends on the health and protection of what remains of the coastal ecosystem.

The Environmental Defense Fund and the Walton Family Foundation funded the report. Both organizations are involved with other groups, including sportsmen’s conservation outfits like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, in trying to ensure fines from the Deepwater Horizon disaster are dedicated to projects that will protect and enhance this declining habitat base.

While the amount of the fines are still be decided in court battles, development forces in some Gulf states already are pushing to use the funds for economic development rather than ecosystem restoration.

The numbers in this report will give anglers and others more than enough firepower to shot down the old argument that only one class of resource-based industries is good for the Gulf economy.