Appealing to the Public Through Their Wallets

 Mosquito Lagoon from a shell midden in Bethune Beach, FL

Its hard to motivate people (or kids) to fall in love with seagrass.  While leading field trips in Florida I found it necessary to relate the importance of seagrass back to more enigmatic species like manatees, Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, locally revered redfish and spotted sea trout, and the beautiful green sea turtles so often found meandering through the lagoon’s seagrass meadows. 

Interestingly, it seems that in an uncertain economy that it might be possible to wedge a respect – if not a love – for the habitat by attaching a financial value to the resource.  Florida Today, a local paper focused on the central Atlantic coastline of Florida, recently published some findings from a partnership involving an outside research firm for the good folks at the St. Johns River Water Management District and the South Florida Water Management District. 

According to them:  “An acre of seagrass — the main money machine when it comes to supporting fish, crabs and other lagoon life — is worth about $4,600 per year in the recreational and commercial fishing it supports” […] and the IRL system as a whole is worth $3.7 billion yearly in the local economy.

Interestingly they included $91 million of the value as an estimation of the worth of the resource in terms of research and education activities that are carried out in the area.  This, more than any other number, caught my attention.  There are several institutions conducting field trip and classroom activities tied into the IRL estuary system including the Marine Science Center, the Brevard Zoo, the Florida Oceanographic Society, the Smithsonian Marine Station, and several county parks and recreation groups along the span of the 156 mile long system. 

Each facility easily serves several hundred to several thousand students every year – Brevard alone leads every fourth grade student out into the Lagoon for a required lesson on estuary systems in their curriculum!  Surely the value of all that work and dedication and education and inspiration is worth more than a measly $91 million!

Perhaps that’s always the case with education – its devalued.  Then again, how do you put a price tag on your first experience holding a slimey American eel, or learning to pull a seine net, or reading Secchi disks, or estimating the pH or salinity of the water, or counting quadrats of seagrass coverage, or getting over your fear of stingrays in the shallows?  Perhaps you can’t.  Too much of education – and especially informal education – falls outside the realm of hard statistics and financial estimations. 

Still, its nice to have an idea of what the Lagoon is worth.  If we cannot approach the problems of pollution and improper fishing practices with appeals to residents’ lingering nostalgia for an estuary that was once crystal clear and teeming with now-endangered species, perhaps we can rally their support for improved water quality and preservation of habitat by attaching their heart strings to the salty waters through their wallets. 

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