What is mushroom picking worth? Data collection strategies and valuation methods in Catalonia

As mushroom picking is a growing recreational activity in Europe, institutions and policy makers are moving towards regulating these resources as well as estimating their value as an ecosystem service.

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Permits for mushroom picking was a pilot project operating from 2012 – 2018, run by the Poblet Natural Park and the Ministry of Territory and Sustainability of the Government of Catalonia. Photo: José Antonio Bonet.

Mushroom picking is a growing recreational activity in Europe and has a rich history as a traditional practice in many areas across the Mediterranean region. Mushrooms are primarily collected in wild forest ecosystems. Their collection can have benefits beyond a recreational level by supporting the commercial sector, through harvesting for trade, and the service sector, through activities like ecotourism and education services.  Moreover, this activity continues to grow. In the Catalonia region of Spain, a survey recently launched by the Catalonian Regional Government estimated that about 23% of the adult population practise mushroom picking at least once a year.

It thus becomes clearer that the benefits of mushroom-picking activities do not always extend to the owners of public or private forestland where mushrooms can be found. Friction between harvesters – both commercial and recreational – and those forest owners who do not receive revenues from mushroom-picking activities have led to an institutional environment that is moving towards the regulation of mycological resources. Given the importance of mushroom picking as a cultural, recreational, and economic activity, understanding the value of mushrooms as an ecosystem service could provide a key tool for policy makers and rural entrepreneurs.

Is there a simple, yet comprehensive way to assign an economical value to a recreational activity such as mushroom picking? In a recent case study in Catalonia, through collaboration between the European Forest Institute – Mediterranean Facility (EFIMED) and the Forest Sciences and Technology Centre of Catalonia (CTFC), we have estimated the value such provisioning and cultural services entail for selected popular mushroom-picking areas. We have tested different sampling techniques in order to study the effect that sampling regimes might have on final value estimations. This means that we contrasted data collected in the field, via forest guards during the picking season, versus data gathered via an online platform at the end of the season. Understanding the best sampling practice using the lens of data accuracy is a crucial issue, as valuing recreational and provisioning resources might open the door to regulation and picking fees. Sound monetary estimations are thus needed, especially in the case of activities such as mushroom picking, which are often sparse in the territory, making it very difficult to obtain a meaningful amount of data for estimating their economic values.

Our results show that, overall, onsite surveys would be better suited when exploring the sample for an initial set up of permit fees, to set permit boundaries and initial applications. Nonetheless, additional care should be taken concerning how the data are collected, and whether no biases are generated from a statistical perspective (e.g. collecting more data on selected days, rather than evenly spreading data collection across the overall mushroom-picking season). On the other hand, online data collection presents the problem of self-selection and self-reporting bias. Online tools might exclude certain sectors of the population with less internet literacy, or might encourage only more skilful and sensitive pickers to reply. This is a common constraint that technicians can encounter when designing online survey interfaces, and a very likely scenario for wild mushroom picking.  In a permit fee scenario, we would recommend the online data collection method to assess fees after their implementation, to test adoption and to profile permit holders.

While these case-specific findings provide important insights to guide policy makers on resource-valuation for regulation and use-fees, this study also supports broader conclusions regarding the importance of carefully selecting valuation methods for recreational activities.  We strongly encourage technicians, when assessing the economic value of recreational activities, to always perform a proper analysis of the effects of the context, chosen sampling strategy and validity of assumptions when adopting valuation estimates for establishing a recreational price of ecosystem services.

We believe this research is important and especially relevant for researchers and practitioners alike, since regulatory frameworks are gradually being developed for this activity and future permit fees may well be based on travel costs estimates. In general, budgetary requirements or time constrains are the standard criteria traditionally considered when opting for different data collection protocols. This study concludes that the model accuracy due to different sampling methods is another crucial dimension that should be taken into account when evaluating recreational resources.

Full reference:

Marini Govigli, V., Górriz-Mifsud, E.,Varela E. 2019. Zonal travel cost approaches to assess recreational wild mushroom picking value: Trade-offs between online and onsite data collection strategies, Forest Policy and Economics (102), 51-65. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2019.02.003