A notice last month in the Federal Register advised that a random survey of 2,400 Americans would be used to measure preferences towards protecting sea lions in Alaska.
It read: "Since different options are available, it is important to understand the public's attitudes about possible impacts on the sea lions, Alaska's fisheries, communities and the nation....This information is not currently available, yet it is crucial to ensure the efficient management of sea lions and Alaskan fisheries."
Say what?! The thought that opinions by far away folks might drive fishery management policies had Alaska's industry quaking in its Xtra-Tuffs.
A patchwork of sea lion protective measures imposed several years ago has shuffled fishing grounds and seasons, and continues to cause economic hardship on fishermen and communities.
Not to worry, said economists at the Seattle-based Alaska Fisheries Science Center, who hastened to add that a clarification will be made to the Federal Register notice due to "confusion of the purpose and scope of the project."
"We are not trying to evaluate how the public feels about particular management options and protection scenarios. The project is focused on different rebuilding and recovery outcomes for Steller sea lions and how they would feel about those outcomes ... how they value those outcomes," explained economist Rob Felthoven.
"For example, is it more important to people that we achieve a certain increase in the population size versus a certain endangered species listing status? We want to understand the types of trade offs people might make," said economist Dan Lew.
"It's a branch of economics that tries to understand non-market values that people place on things they don't go out and buy," added division director Pat Livingston.
A number of previous economic studies have tried to value threatened and endangered species on land, but very few have been done on marine mammals. The most recent survey in 2001 revealed that a random sample of 297 Florida households would donate an average of $10.25 to a fund to protect endangered manatees if government protection was removed.
An earlier survey asked California households how much they would be willing to pay into a special protection fund to increase gray whale populations by 50 percent and 100 percent. (The responses averaged $16.18 and $18.14 per year, respectively, in 1992 dollars). Another questionnaire asked Californians to estimate their willingness to pay for a protection fund to preserve existing populations of bottlenose dolphins, sea otters, elephant seals, gray whales and blue whales. The average values ranged from a low of $21.69 for elephant seals to a high of $28.78 for blue whales (in 1984 dollars).
"Federal agencies have a mandate that requires we consider the costs and benefits associated with regulatory actions," Felthoven said. "Since we don't know the values people place on Steller sea lion protections, the nationwide survey will help fill a gap that meets a regulatory requirement and provide better information that decision makers can use in evaluation the trade offs between different goals of these programs."
The public is also invited to comment on whether the collection of the Steller sea lion survey information is necessary and useful, and to suggest ways the process might be improved. Deadline to comment to NOAA Fisheries is Oct. 16.
Coastal communities face an uncertain future as fisheries are rationalized, privatized and restructured. A two-day conference this month will offer strategies to make sure fishing remains as a vibrant sector throughout Alaska.
"The idea is to be forward looking, to think about the planning we need to do now so our next generations will have fishing as an economic opportunity," said Paula Cullenberg, a marine advisory agent with Alaska Sea Grant, a sponsor of the event.
Cullenberg added the conference is not academic or political, and is designed to appeal to any coastal community residents. "Everyone recognizes the answers are not the same in Petersburg or Bethel or Koliganik. Every community is different and in a lot of ways we're isolated from each other. Sometimes it's nice to just sit with people from other parts of the state or the country or the world and share ideas that spark creativity and you can take them back to your community," she said.
"We must not ignore or suck the economic vitality from small coastal communities when we embrace the goals of more efficiency in fisheries management," said Phil Smith, director of the federal Restricted Access Management division in Juneau.
The Harvesting the Future conference takes place Sept. 21-22 at the Anchorage Hilton. Contact Sherri Pristash at 907-474-6701 or www.alaskaseagrant.org.