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Values in action: NWF Report on freshwater fish, thousands of jobs and angling heritage at risk from climate change

October 30, 2013

Brook trout. Photo by Eric Engbretson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the National Wildlife Federation’s recent report, “Swimming Upstream: Freshwater Fish in a Warming World,” the ecological, economic, and cultural costs of climate change go hand in hand. “For generations, Americans have taken their children and grandchildren to their local fishing hole, lake or stream for some low-cost, outdoor family fun,” the report begins. “But in recent decades, warming temperatures have begun to threaten our freshwater fish and the thousands of outdoor recreation jobs that depend on them.”

The report outlines the risks stacking up against freshwater fish with grim efficiency – suitable habitat for cold-water species may decline by 50 percent across the United States by the end of the century. Aside from warmer water, increased oxygen depletion and poorer mixing, more extreme weather and drought, and receding waters can all harm fish. In addition, climate change can exacerbate indirect threats – more frequent, intense wildfires increase the likelihood of erosion, while warmer temperatures can favor parasites like the sea lamprey and diseases such as Columnaris, which is becoming the “new normal” in hot years for some rivers. The report also draws attention to the southeastern United States’ value as a global aquatic hot spot (for example, the 290-mile long Duck River in Tennessee has more fish species than all of Europe) and shows how the range of brook trout may collapse under a business-as-usual emissions scenario in 2050.

This plays upon the biospheric area of what Israeli sociologist Shalom Schwartz terms “value clusters,” groups of individual values that describe people’s priorities. (For a more in-depth look at value clusters, see Common Cause’s summary here.) Value in the same cluster tend to be prioritized in similar ways, whereas values in widely distanced clusters are typically more likely to come into conflict. Traditionally, research suggests that environmental beliefs and actions are related to “self-transcendent values,” such as universalism, which encompasses social justice, as well as unity with nature. More recently, environmental psychologists have suggested that biospheric values, which stress the intrinsic worth of nature and the environment, as a separate cluster within self-transcendent values. In this report, NWF highlights such intrinsic value in American freshwater systems, by stressing its unique biodiversity as a freshwater hotspot and the fact that climate change will seriously harm fish and freshwater invertebrate species.

Photo by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

However, the report also stresses freshwater fishing as part of a national heritage – midwestern families holding on to a tradition of ice fishing, the brook trout’s emblematic status as the state fish of Virginia, and the cultural, economic, and religious importance of salmon for tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the renowned angling opportunities in Yellowstone National Park (incidentally economically valued between $67.5 and $385 million annually). This speaks to a wide range of values, not all of them part of the self-transcendence clusters.  Preserving tradition is a more conservative cluster in Schwartz’s value typology, falling outside the self-transcendence values that traditionally go hand-in-hand with environmental beliefs. The issue of Yellowstone fisheries is also presented in relation to multiple values. While “high alpine backcountry adventures” ties excitement, challenge and independent action, part of what Shwartz terms “stimulation” and “self-direction” clusters – also not strongly aligned with environmentalism – the waters are also described as a place that shapes family heritage, and a resource that rural communities and up to 42 species depend on, bringing us back to both tradition and altruism.

Appealing to values that are all over the map – tradition and self-direction, altruism and stimulation – may serve to tie different constituencies together to achieve common goals. The report also brings in the economic case, citing a study that claims recreational freshwater fishing could face a loss of up to $6.4 billion annually by 2100, with thousands of fishing-dependent outdoor recreation jobs at stake. Certainly NWF isn’t the only organization to cite a range of reasons to tackle environmental issues, nor to add valuation to values by counting the possible economic costs. But it’s worth noting the values – and publics – that such documents address, as they make the case for particular policies. How effective is wedding such a range of values in promoting freshwater biodiversity? And what happens when values – preserving that family angling tradition versus protecting dwindling stocks, for example – come into conflict?

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