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Sterilizing Sea Lampreys and Destroying Dams: All in a Day’s Work

Kari Lydersen

Battling invasive Asian carp is one challenge facing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers and other state and federal government employees working with them. A new report by the agency says its fisheries work creates 68,000 jobs.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the federal agency responsible for making sure endangered species are protected under the Endangered Species Act, one of the nation’s most powerful environmental regulations. As such, USFWS decisions and studies may result in development, mining, logging and other projects being substantially altered or derailed if they would significantly impact the habitat and well-being of endangered plants, animals and insects.

Since at least the infamous battles over protection of the spotted owl in the face of logging plans in the Pacific Northwest three decades ago, the Act and by extension the USFWS’s work have often been framed as out-of-control efforts on behalf of small creatures with long funny names, efforts that kill jobs in economically depressed areas.

But a recently-released report by the federal agency says that its work protecting endangered species and habitat and fighting invasive species in its fishery program alone creates more than 68,000 jobs. The calculations include amorphous, hard-to-quantify direct, indirect and induced” jobs, meaning the exact numbers are open to question and arguably inflated. But overall the study makes a strong case for the economic and jobs value of the agency’s fishery program and protecting natural resources in general.

And it comes of course at a time that both public employees and environmental protections are under political attack.

The study, which is dated Sept. 2010 but was released by the agency last week, logs 45,000 jobs created by the USFWS’s aquatic habitat restoration efforts, and 13,200 by invasive species management. It also lists 8,003 jobs created related to public use of national fisheries, and 1,854 jobs related to subsistence fisheries – many of them tribal – that the USFWS helps maintain. The tallies include jobs directly with the USFWS and also other federal and state agencies and private firms and contractors. The USFWS fisheries program itself employs about 800 people nationwide at fish hatcheries, fish health centers, fish technology centers and the Historic National Fish Hatchery and Archives.

In all, the report says, the USFWS fisheries program contributes about $3.6 billion to the U.S. economy, while overall hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation contribute an estimated $730 billion to the U.S. economy each year,” as described in a USFWS press release that says one dollar invested in this economy creates $28 in ripple effects. The press release says:

One in twenty U.S. jobs are in the recreation economy – more than there are doctors, lawyers, or teachers…The economic contributions generated are evidenced at sporting goods stores, marinas, guides and outfitter services, boat dealerships, bait shops, gas stations, cafes, hotels, and many other enterprises.

Much sport fishing relies on fish being raised and stocked in lakes and streams by state and federal government agencies. The success of commercial fishing is also largely dependent on the federal government’s programs for habitat protection, fish hatcheries and control of overfishing. The report says the USFW’s fish hatchery program creates 8,000 jobs and $256 million in salaries and wages. A hatchery typically employs people with a range of skill and education levels, from janitorial staff to scientists.

The USFWS also has a fish passage” program to help fish including spawning salmon get past man-made obstacles like dams. The program aims to involve state agencies and private contractors in restoring 890 miles a year of U.S. streams and rivers to a natural” state, an effort the agency says has created 11,000 jobs.

Controlling invasive aquatic species – plants and animals introduced from elsewhere that proliferate and out-compete native species and otherwise cause damage – costs the government many millions of dollars each year. The silver lining is it also creates jobs, as the USFWS report points out.

About 13,200 jobs are created, it says, solely by the effort to control sea lampreys – a primitive, blood-sucking, eel-like organism that entered U.S. waters through the ballast of European ships and has decimated sport fish like trout and bass. The various methods of sea lamprey control include mass sterilization, wherein federal employees spend their days running male sea lampreys through a machine that uses radiation to render them infertile, with the idea they will still compete to mate with females and hence reduce overall reproduction rates.

Many of the jobs created to protect fish and their habitat are in earth-moving, shovel-ready”-type construction projects of the type that were the staple of the Works Progress Administration and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. For example, building culverts through levees in Florida to allow fish to pass into tidal estuaries…or removing dams in Northeastern rivers so American eels, herring and other fish can move freely between rivers and the Atlantic Ocean.

The report notes that the fisheries program has helped many species recover over past decades, including majestic species with much historical and cultural value like lake sturgeon. But many species are still declining or at risk – as of 2009 the Endangered Species list included 25 types of amphibians, 139 fish, 70 mussels and 22 crustaceans. The report – released during a time of extreme budget cuts and likely escalating attacks on government spending and the role of science and conservation leading up to the 2012 presidential elections – argues that continuing to invest in the preservation of these and other aquatic species will also keep people working.

The Nation’s fish and aquatic resources are among the richest and most diverse in the world. The aquatic resources, and the recreational, commercial, and subsistence opportunities they provide, have helped support the Nation’s growth by providing enormous ecological, social, and economic contributions. 

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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