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Friday
Mar052010

Stopping aquatic hitchhikers: an interview with an innovator in conservation marketing

Joe Starnichak with fish.Invasive species unintentionally transported by boaters, fishers, and other recreational users can pose a major threat to aquatic ecosystems. Joe Starinchak with the US Fish and Wildlife Service launched the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! campaign to change the behaviors of aquatic recreational users and halt the unintentional spread of invasive species.

The Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! program has developed an innovative, entrepneurial approach partnering with industry and adopting marketing tactics more commonly used in the business world. In this regard, the campaign may serve as a good model for other conservation efforts looking to engage the public on a particular issue.

We interviewed Joe Starnichak about Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! and his innovative ideas on conservation marketing.

1) Can you describe the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! program and tell us how successful the program has been?

JS: Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! is a national social marketing campaign that simplifies the very complex aquatic invasive species issue, targets and makes it relevant to aquatic recreational users and empowers them to become part of the solution by cleaning their equipment every time they leave the water so they can prevent the introduction and spread of these species into uninfested waters.

There are multiple objectives for the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! program; it was designed to build capacity, unify government (& stakeholders), leverage diverse capabilities, creatively address funding issues and engage Businesses/Community Organizations to proactively address and prevent the aquatic invasive species issue.  However, all of these objectives are met by focusing on changing the behaviors of individual aquatic recreational users by empowering them with prevention guidance to stop the spread of aquatic invasive species. 

The program has been wildly successful in meeting the intermediate objectives; however much work still has to be done to meet the ultimate objective of changing individual aquatic recreational users’ behaviors so that cleaning your recreational equipment every time you leave the water becomes second nature and is an absolute for those who recreate on the water.  To achieve the ultimate objective, one of the big obstacles to overcome is funding.

2) Can you give us a specific example of a partnership between the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! program and private industry and what that has entailed?

JS: A specific example of a partnership between the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! program and private industry would have to be Patagonia, and the rather long-winded explanation is below; however, I think it's important for you to understand it because of the milestones we've achieved and the significance of the threat of invasive species.

In the fall of 2005, Patagonia joined the campaign, and this was just the tip of the iceberg. While Patagonia is based in Ventura, their owner and founder, Yvon Chouinard has a place in Jackson Hole, WY and this is also where my contact with the company resides. So, because of this and for some other reasons, the Greater Yellowstone Area became a point of focus.

Jackson Hole is in the southern part of the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA), which is a region in the Intermountain West that is that has a significant public lands presence and is comprised of 2 national parks, 6 national forests, 4 fish & wildlife refuges, all of which are spread across three states including Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. With the large public lands presence, there are fantastic resources in the area, including the crown jewel of the national park system, Yellowstone.

This whole region has been undergoing an economic transformation from an extractive economy to a tourist-based economy that is heavily dependent on the natural resources. And the true economic engines are the region's rivers. They attract high-end fly fisherman, white-water rafters, wildlife watchers, kayakers and families because this is where the wildlife is.

Well, it just so happens that invasive species are the biggest threat to these rivers, and they have already been impacted to a certain degree through the impacts of whirling disease, New Zealand mud snails and didymo. And now with the threat of quagga and zebra mussels, there are significant concerns because of the way water is moved around the west.

Well, because of Patagonia's involvement, I knew I could get greater engagement from other businesses. Their business model is based on the five good deeds of Buddhism and they live and breathe these ideals. And one of the most prominent ones is to use your influence to do good. Knowing this, I knew I could make some headway.

And it just so happens that one of Patagonia's fiercest rivals in the high-end wading market is Simms Fishing Products is based out of Bozeman, Montana. Well, my Patagonia contact talked to Simms and they agreed to put aside their competition and work collaboratively with the government agencies to address this issue in the GYA. With this materializing, it seems like the beginning of an ideal partnership, but I had to put in time to literally herd the government cats.

With the federal presence of the Park Service, Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service spread across three states, essentially, you have 6 different governmental entities, who address fish and wildlife and don't necessarily have a good track record of playing nice together. Bottom line is that the government conservation community is very provincial and siloed and has not seen the value of working together. 

So, I was able to bring the three federal agencies together alongside the three state fish and wildlife agencies. At that point, I said that if we, collectively as the government resource management agencies, could get our act together and promote one message to address the invasive species issue, we could get significant engagement from the business community. The initial reaction of the bureaucrats was no way, it won't happen. Well, knowing Patagonia, I knew otherwise.

So, after taking 5 trips out the GYA, and talking to many different businesses, we attracted probably sixty different businesses including restaurants, hotels, fly fishing guides, rafting companies, non-profits and others to help spread the word. So, we were quite literally able to move the needle. The operational aspects of this partnership culminated in a "marketing workshop" in Jackson Hole where we brought all the partners to the table and laid out our plans to make Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! the key message throughout the region. About six months later, after we laid out these plans, we were able to hold two community engagement workshops, one in Bozeman and one in Jackson Hole.

Simms sponsored the one in Bozeman and we got a good turnout from a variety of different interests, primarily from the fishing community. And the next day, I drove down to Jackson Hole and we had a similar workshop there as well. However, because of Patagonia's visionary leadership, they approached this workshop a bit differently than Simms. They brought two nonprofits to the table with money. These nonprofits provided the funding to buy solar-powered pressure washers, which were then placed along the Snake River. Given that the river runs through a relatively remote area, these solar powered pressure washers were exactly what was needed.

It's one thing to promote an empowering and consistent message, but its another thing to provide the infrastructure necessary to reinforce the cleaning behaviors that are the foundation of the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! campaign. And this is exactly what Patagonia did. On top of this, the company that made the solar-powered pressure washers had also joined the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! campaign. So, when the identified need for infrastructure arose, I was able to help connect the dots.

The bottom line with this whole story is that we have found a way to creatively destroy the notion of jobs versus the environment, catalyze product innovation to address a significant threat to biodiversity and harness the power of the market to address real conservation needs while protecting our precious natural resources. And this wouldn't have been possible without the amazing leadership of Patagonia.

On top of this, Patagonia used it's influence to bring the entire fly fishing industry sector to the table and catalyze them to use their marketing competencies to help spread the word and create consumer behavior change.

3) In your opinion, how is the program innovative compared to the typical approach in the conservation community for engaging the public?

JS: From my perspective, the program is innovative because it is focused on producing results.  Past efforts of the conservation community to engage the public have been dominated by what I term is a “shotgun approach” that has relied exclusively on just providing information.  And all the educational research I have been exposed to clearly indicates that information alone will not change behaviors.  All you have to do is look at smoking in our society.  Clinical research has clearly shown that smoking is bad for your health, yet people still do it.

4) Can you tell us about your background and how that's influence the approach that you've taken?

JS: I have a non-traditional background in that I work for the country’s only national fish and wildlife conservation agency, yet I don’t have the typical fisheries or wildlife management degrees.  I have a liberal arts biology degree and a masters in marketing, public policy, organizational development and systems thinking.  The combination of my non-traditional educational training and my diverse work experience has had a considerable influence on how I see conservation issues and it has enabled me to see the various opportunities to pursue collaborative relationships and empower people to become part of the solution for the very complex issues we are dealing with today.

5) I find it interesting that you've been able to accomplish this within an agency setting where bureaucracy and a lack of resources can sometimes stifle innovation. Do you think the agency setting helps or hurts developing an entrepreneurial program like this and why?

JS: I believe this is a double-edged sword, so to speak.  On one hand, I do think the agency’s culture can be incredibly stifling; however, on the other hand, if appropriately leveraged the agency’s unique value proposition can open up many doors for innovation.

6) What advice would you have for a new NGO or governmental program working with little resources but trying to engage the public on a conservation issue?

JS: My best advice would be to think differently.  Just because you may work in the context of a bureaucracy doesn’t mean you have to become a mindless drone.  Follow your passions and learn about the world around us and which organizations have the greatest leverage to affect change within our society.

7) What are some of the new programs that you have been working on in addition to Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers?

JS: In addition to Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers!, I have another cross-sector campaign with the pet and aquarium industry known as Habitattitude.  This campaign targets aquarium hobbyists and water gardeners to educate them about the invasive species issue and how they can become part of the solution by ensuring they embrace environmentally-friendly pet surrender and/or responsible hobbyist behaviors to prevent the spread and/or release of exotic plants and animals into the environment.

I am also responsible for another cross-sector campaign that creates a partnership between my agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the American Pharmacists Association and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to educate consumers about environmentally-friendly medication disposal guidance.  Known as SMARxT Disposal, this campaign helps medication consumers to move away from the long-standing consumer advice of flushing medications and empowers them to adopt interim disposal techniques to minimize the impacts of pharmaceuticals on the environment.

--Interviewed by Rob Goldstein

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