Are we really oceans apart?

BY Sarah Roberton

It’s been an active year for those seeking to protect the world’s oceans. At the COP15 summit on biodiversity in December 2022, about 190 countries signed on to a United Nations commitment to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 – a plan known as 30×30. Canada was among the signatories. And in February 2023, at the fifth annual International Marine Protected Areas Conference (IMPAC5), Canada’s federal government, among others, made further commitments on minimum standards for federal marine protection areas (MPAs).

Recent research Environics conducted for SeaBlue and WWF-Canada shows that, although Canadians are not very familiar with the 30X30 commitment specifically – and six in ten have never heard of a “marine protected area” – the public is broadly supportive of increased protection for oceans. Most Canadians believe ocean health is deteriorating and that not enough is being done to reverse this trend. So despite limited public awareness of the 30X30 commitment, when asked what they think about the idea of protecting large swaths of ocean from industrial activity, most Canadians are supportive.

But do Canadians really understand what’s at stake when they express support for MPAs and other protective measures? When the SeaBlue survey was published, we heard from a fish harvester on the BC coast who doubted that Canadians understood the trade-offs implied by their views. The harvester expressed concern that the survey results reflect – and publicize – the views of a relatively uninformed public, and may not give adequate weight to the people and communities whose livelihoods are directly affected by restrictions on commercial fishing and other activities. Could the poll have the effect of polarizing the public instead of bringing us toward common ground and workable solutions?

The concern is not without foundation. Some polls are created not primarily to gain insight into public opinion, but to generate survey results that can be used for publicity and/or to legitimize a specific perspective. These are sometimes referred to as “push polls,” meaning that the questions are crafted to push respondents toward a given answer.

Most clients, including advocacy groups, understand that this kind of polling with a pre-ordained outcome is counter-productive. Those who want to influence public opinion by making strong, persuasive arguments typically realize they first need to understand public attitudes and then use that understanding to build an effective case, meeting people where they are.

The SeaBlue survey was not only a well-designed survey with a robust sample and balanced questions (with all question wording and methodology available online per market research industry standards), it was also the most recent iteration of a survey they had been fielding over several years, enabling readers to observe changes in public opinion on questions posed the same way at different times. As it happens, contrary to the fish harvester’s concern, Canadians are not heedless of the fact that the ocean plays an important role economically as well as ecologically. Indeed, Canadians’ primary reservation about ocean protection is the potential impact on the fishing industry and the communities that depend on it.

Steveston Harbour in Richmond BC

Although the public is not always deeply informed about the science or the policy nuances of a given issue, it’s very often the case that if given some basic context and asked a well-crafted question, the results will reflect a range of valid and relevant concerns. In this case, there are Canadians who feel strongly about limiting commercial activity to protect biodiversity and Canadians who are fiercely protective of the economic benefits of Canada’s fisheries. The common ground that emerges from these opposing views is that the oceans play multiple roles we care about and their management is a matter of widely shared concern.

It is difficult for a single survey to capture the full range of perspectives on a complex issue. And surveys can’t necessarily tell us how to resolve conflicts and craft livable compromises. But surveys designed with a genuine interest in understanding what the public knows and thinks are valuable to everyone, including those who have a strong perspective. This kind of research helps us identify areas where we agree and can also help society have better, more productive discussions about areas where we disagree.

The fish harvester was right that most Canadians are not very knowledgeable about the measures being taken to protect oceans. But the harvester mistook that to mean Canadians don’t care about the fates of people and communities that make a living through fishing, which is untrue. The survey posed honest questions and received honest answers from a public that’s imperfectly informed, but that basically wants a healthy environment and a healthy fishery. How we get there is the next step.

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