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Business Professor Geoffrey Heal Works to Promote Market-Based Environmental Conservation

By Colin Morris

Geoffrey Heal

Changing the oil in your car and letting the runoff drain into the sewer can directly affect the toxin levels in the fish you put on your table. That same oil runoff can drain not only the American coastal business industry, but the global economy as well (not to mention increasing the price of fish).

The perception that crucial environmental conservation measures weigh down the economy is something that Geoffrey Heal, Paul Garret Professor of Public Policy and Business Responsibility at the Business School, is trying to change.

"My interest is in the economic costs and benefits of environmental conservation. There's a prejudice in the way people think about conservation," explains Heal. "There's a lot of propaganda to the effect that conservation is always economically hard, which is just not true. It's frequently beneficial and there are quite a lot of [countries] that actually benefit from it."

In 2000, Heal was invited to join the Pew Oceans Commission Board, which in May published a comprehensive report and recommendation for a new U.S. ocean policy.

"It's been 30 years since a major review of U.S. ocean management policies. And much has changed," Heal says.

The commission is comprised of experts in the field, special interest groups and politicians, including New York Governor George Pataki and former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. Heal found the commission's political constitution to be roundly bi-partisan. Political unity on the issues facing the nation's oceans further underscores Heal's belief that there is a growing consensus in recognizing that ecological conservation is a major interest for everyone.

The commission's approach and recommendations echo what Heal calls market-based environmental conservation. For example, some of the loudest voices in the debate over curbing pollutants and protecting coastal fish populations have come from the sport fishing industry which, taking in around 100 billion dollars a year, more than triples the nation's commercial fishing industry. If the amount and quality of the fish is reduced, so is their industry, which economically affects far more than merely coastal areas.

The commission focused on two aspects that greatly harm the coastal environment and economy: pollution and over fishing. "One thing that did surprise us was the extent of pollution," says Heal, who illustrates his point locally by means of a litmus test. "If you took a piece of blue litmus paper off the New York shore and put it in the water it would come up pink," he says. The test measures the amount of acidity through change in color, which in this case was alarmingly high.

There are several major contributors to oceanic pollution. "A huge amount of nitrogen is burnt in power stations and internal combustion engines and it turns into nitrous oxides, which dissolve into the sea and form nitrous acid," Heal explains. "There is a lot of nitrogen in the sea from fertilizer, but you also get a lot from general air pollution."

A classic example of the damage by fertilizer is the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where sea life has been wiped out. While still growing, the dead-zone is now around the size of Massachusetts. The Mississippi River is the drainage basin for more than half of the continental United States, "So virtually all the fertilizer that isn't used up by plants runs into the Gulf of Mexico," says Heal.

According to the Pew commission's findings, oil drainage equaling the amount spilled from the 1989 Exxon-Valdez disaster pours into the oceans surrounding the United States every eight months. Most of this is the oil from automobiles, and everything from leaky tailpipes to oil changes can eventually make their way into the sewers. Heal indicates that "all sewage systems ultimately discharge into the sea," vastly reducing fish populations.

To help combat these pollutants, the commission recommends that all states establish ambient water quality standards for nitrogen and address non-point source pollution on a watershed level.

Overfishing has taken its toll on the population of many species of marine life as well. Though fishing in certain areas has been greatly reduced in recent years, the damaging methods by which businesses continue to harvest their catch threaten the marine ecosystem at large. The bycatch of fishing vessels continues to damage a variety of populations. For example, boats fishing for Pacific salmon often troll large areas with nets that don't discriminate between species. In turn, Heal explains, for every salmon caught on average two other species are brought in as well. This includes marine life such as sea birds, dolphins and endangered sea turtles, as well as fish. After being dragged through the water in the nets, by the time the day's catch is hauled in, almost all the marine life caught in the nets is dead.

The commission proposes redefining the principle objective of American marine fishery policy to protect marine ecosystems. This would include the regulation of commercial fishing gear as well as the establishment of marine zoning.

The commission also found positive occurrences in unlikely places. Off shore oilrigs, which have proven to be very clean over the years, have also created a makeshift habitat for marine life, according to Heal.

"Oilrigs have actually increased the productivity of the fisheries," Heal says. "Sport and commercial fisherman like to fish near oilrigs since fish congregate around the barnacles and seaweed growth on the rigs, which create a reef-like atmosphere. The oilrigs get a plus rather than a minus in that respect."

Another region that has caught the eye of Heal with a flurry of market-based environmental conservation is Southern Africa. According to Heal, after the colonial period much of the semi-arid regions of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe were devastated through habitat depletion and overgrazing of cattle ranching industry. This business showed little profitability, and economic communities remained poor. The ranch owners, however, began to realize that by selling their cattle and allowing the natural vegetation to grow back, they could stock the land with the original wild animals and create what we now know as safari parks. The parks are vastly more lucrative than the cattle ranches, employ much more of the local community, and contribute to mass amounts of environmental conservation in the region.

"Tourists usually travel for two reasons," Heal explains, "to see historical things or the environment." With certain regions leading by example and the Pew Oceans Commission's recommendations to for a new U.S. oceans policy, Heal hopes to further promote market-based environmental conservation.

Published: Aug 14, 2003
Last modified: Aug 14, 2003


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