NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Wildlife tourism, from hunting and fishing to bird and dolphin watching, is a $19 billion-a-year business along the Gulf of Mexico, and states spending their settlement money from the 2010 BP oil spill should focus on restoring ecologically sensitive areas that keep guides, hotels and others working, a study says.
The study, commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Walton Family Foundation, was released Tuesday at a replica of a historic lighthouse while the seafood restaurant next door geared up for lunch and sailboats set out on Lake Ponchartrain.
Wildlife tourism brings in 20 million visitors who pay $5.3 billion a year in federal state and local taxes, according to the study, which drew financial and tourist data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal Bureau of Labor Standards and from parish and county tourism bureaus.
Wildlife watching draws 11.5 million people a year to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, according to the study. It said recreational fishing attracts 7.5 million visitors and hunting 2.7 million.
The 53 coastal counties and parishes in those states have more than 25,000 tourism-related businesses and nearly 500,000 associated jobs, it said.
The study by Datu Research LLC of Durham, N.C., was released in Louisiana because its marshes and estuaries are the nursery for 90 percent of the Gulf states' seafood fisheries, said Jim Wyerman, spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund. The state's 400 miles of coastline are so fringed with wetlands that they comprise 7,700 miles of shoreline.
"Unlike the other states, we don't have the pristine beaches and hotels along the beaches," said Capt. Ryan Lambert, owner of Cajun Fishing Adventures in Buras. "So our wetlands are vitally important."
That's why BP money should go into restoring coastal marshes and estuaries, said Jefferson Parish President John Young.
The study includes a state-by-state list of 1,100 coastal guides and outfitters. Those companies bring in business for 11,000 restaurants, hotels and motels, it said.
An email survey of 106 guides and outfitters found that 55 percent said at least half their clients ask for restaurant recommendations; 40 percent said at least half their clients ask for hotel recommendations. Restaurants and hotels and motels also recommend guide businesses, it said.
BP PLC has provided $1 billion as a "down payment" for coastal restoration from the spill, which spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It says it has spent more than $24 billion on spill-related expenses, including cleanup costs and compensation for businesses and individuals.
A trial set to resume in September will decide how much money the federal government and Gulf Coast states should get under the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and other environmental regulations.
Projects approved this year for some of the first $1 billion in restoration money range from $320 million to increase the size of four barrier islands off Louisiana to an $85.5 million project to improve a beachfront park in Alabama and build a convention center hotel there.
"We know now, in 2013, the direct, positive linkage between environmental protection along the coast and economic opportunity -- and even economic survival," said Steve Cochran, director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Mississippi River Delta Reconstruction Program.
"We have this opportunity -- from a tragic source -- to do a lot of things that we know we should do to protect our economy. They're environmental things but they protect our economy."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.