If cleaning up our ecosystems for the health of the planet doesn't motivate action, perhaps we should consider this: Investing in our ecosystems is investing in future tourism. Tourism, which brings in millions of dollars to our local economies, relies on a clean environment.
People who come to Maryland and Virginia expect to eat local crabs and local oysters, said Alison Prost, Maryland office attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Fishing guides - including outfitters along Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia rivers - must have healthy fish and clean water to attract business.
Likewise, pristine views are hardly pristine if they include fish kills or gobs of algae.
So by backing oyster restoration, upgraded sewage treatment systems and other efforts to restore clean waters, we're ultimately bringing in more revenue for local businesses and more tax money for state and city coffers.
States greatly esteem their tourism industries, which generate millions for local economies. Pennsylvania's generates about $25 billion a year, but like other mid-Atlantic states, it doesn't calculate what part of that depends on a clean environment. Yet camping, hiking, skiing, hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities are a big pull for tourists to the Keystone State.
In 2008, Maryland was host to more than 28 million visitors who spent nearly $14.5 billion on travel-related expenses, including charter fishing, hunting, hiking and camping as well as meals made up of Maryland-harvested seafood. According to the Department of Natural Resources, the annual value of tourism and commercial activities related to the Chesapeake Bay exceeds $31.6 billion.
Virginia tourism generates about $19.2 billion in visitor spending annually. In addition to fishing, camping and other outdoor activities, the commonwealth also has a robust seafood industry.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a study on how much people spend on fishing, hunting and wildlife-associated activities. According to their survey last year, hunting and fishing generated $0.9 billion in Maryland, $4.0 billion in Pennsylvania, $1.4 billion in Virginia and $2.0 billion in New York - no small chunk of change in any state.
Every dollar invested in open space generates about $3 to $4 in tourism, said Prost, quoting the Maryland Department of Natural Resources figure.
"People aren't going to want to recreate - kayak, swim - if they are scared of putting their family or themselves at risk," she said. Last year's warnings about high levels of bacteria discouraged many swimmers from entering the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary waters.
Prost said that she has heard of people who say they used to swim in their local tributary, but now won't allow their grandkids to splash in creek waters. Last July, near downtown Annapolis, bacteria counts were 28 times the level considered safe for swimming, according to a CBF report.
Prost also suspects that fishing advisories - which urge people to limit their consumption of certain types of fish - may deter some from fishing in Chesapeake waters and encourage them to visit elsewhere.
So if a cleaner Chesapeake is better for our economy - and will help secure future tourism - why aren't more tourism-related businesses and agencies stepping up to help protect the Bay's environment?
To their credit, some hotels and restaurants do help to lessen the impact of tourism itself. Hotels that offer recycling in each room, use non-toxic biodegradable cleaning products and install low-flow showerheads are at least making strides to stop harming the environment.
Tourists can use their dollars to support sustainable operations and businesses. The current 'eco-tourism' trend is a nascent idea that travelers can make thoughtful choices about where and how to travel that will ease their impact on the local ecosystem. Sounds like an easy solution, but travelers must be wary of green-washing and check out the record of any company claiming to be on board with eco-tourism.
Because jobs, the economy and quality of life are all intricately connected to the condition of the Bay watershed, additional partnering among various businesses - tourism and farming as well as watermen - would be helpful, Prost said. The tourism industry could help the environmental community push for additional funding and staffing on programs that improve water quality, such as Maryland's Bay Restoration Fund, which cleans up septic systems.
So often we hear "environment" pitted against "jobs," but when it comes to tourism, the environment and jobs go hand in hand.
The fishing industry, too, greatly depends on waters that are healthy enough to support rockfish, oysters, crabs and other desirable catches.
Visitors who come to Maryland expect Maryland blue crab to be served up in crab cakes and on paper-covered picnic tables, Prost said. "People don't want to see the asterisk on the menu that the crab is from somewhere else."