By Mark Felton
Whale watching is big business: tourists spent more than $125 million on tickets and travel to Stellwagen in 2008. They spent about $2.1 billion to see cetaceans around the world. According to whale biologist Roger Payne, it is essential that such visitors “become awestruck by whales.” Whale watchers, not scientists, are going to determine their fate.
Here are a few things that endangered species have done for local communities. Manatees attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to Florida each year, where they spend more than $23 million “¦. Reef-based tourism around the Florida Keys is almost entirely dependent on the dominant (and federally listed) staghorn and elk-horn corals; the industry employs more than 43,000 people whose annual wage income totals $1.2 billion. Reefs supply more than half a billion people with food and work, buffering coastlines from waves and producing sand for the beaches—each hectare of reef generates up to $130,000 of ecosystem services, the benefits that nature provides for free. “¦
Americans spent more than $120 billion hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching in 2006. That’s more than the Super Bowl. “¦ Hard to believe, until you consider that more than 71 million Americans spent more than $45 billion just on observing and photographing wildlife. “¦ This passion for simply watching nature resulted in more than a million jobs.
A common complaint is that wild areas reduce the tax base in a community… . But the Departments of the Interior and Commerce and the Census Bureau have been gathering data since 1955. The most recent study showed that wildlife watching brought in almost $9 billion in tax revenues to state and local governments. And this doesn’t even include other local services such as storm protection or the provision of fish and freshwater, or global ones like climate regulation.
The figures for bird-watchers alone are staggering: there are 48 million in the United States, compared to about 33 million anglers and hunters. “¦ around 20 million travel each year to see birds, averaging about two weeks on the road. That’s a lot of birders, and a lot of cash. Just as cities compete for stadiums and factories, communities should vie for parks and charismatic fauna. “¦
Photo: Wildlife watchers like Peter Ossorio and Steve Robinson, shown above relaxing in lobo country, are a key source of revenue for rural communities.