The SeaWeb/Mellman Group Landmark Poll on US Public Attitudes Toward the Oceans

In 1996, SeaWeb commission the Washington, D.C.-based polling company The Mellman Group to conduct a major public opinion poll on U.S. public attitudes toward the ocean and ocean issues. Combined with a series of focus groups conducted the previous year, this collaboration provides the first and most comprehensive overview of the way in which the American public views the marine environment.

It is important to note that the SeaWeb campaign is not a direct response to the results of the public opinion poll. The poll is critically important to informing the campaign but is only one of several tools used to determine the salience of our communications. The research has given us a strong sense of what will work to engage the public in this issue, but the public still requires educating before acknowledging a problem.

If you would like a copy of the public opinion poll, please contact us at:

Public Opinion Poll
1731 Connecticut Ave. NW
4th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20009

1. About the Mellman Group, Inc. (furnished by Mellman)

2. The Mellman Group's introduction and notes on Focus Group participants

3. Focus Group Findings:

4. The Mellman Group's introduction and notes on the Public Opinion Survey

5. Public Opinion Survey Results:
The Mellman Group's introduction and notes on focus group participants

The Mellman Group conducted eight focus groups on behalf of The Marine Conservation Initiative on November 7, 9, 14, and 15, 1995. Two groups were held in St. Louis, MO, two groups in San Diego, CA, two groups in Boston, MA, and two groups in Pensacola, FL. With the exception of Boston, each group was composed of activists who were involved in some form of social, political, or community activity and considered themselves to be strong environmentalists. In Boston, one focus group consisted of activists who considered themselves environmentalists while the other group was comprised of individuals who believed economic development was more important than environmental protection. Participants were selected to represent a range of demographic backgrounds. (see graph)

The intent of focus groups is to seek insight and direction rather than quantitatively precise or absolute measures. Because the number of individuals participating in these groups is limited, this research must be considered in a qualitative frame of reference. The following biases are inherent in this type of study and are stated here to remind the reader that the data presented cannot be projected to any larger universe of individuals.

1. Focus group participants tend to be risk takers and may be somewhat more assertive and opinionated than non-participants.

2. Participants "self-select" themselves. That is, they are people who are available on the night the groups were scheduled and were willing to participate.

3. People in groups may respond differently to a question in a group setting than if asked that same question individually. They may follow the lead of a strong speaker or someone they perceive as an 'expert.'

Further, this report cannot accurately detail the wealth of information in the non-verbal area. It also cannot report the subtle area of "peer pressure" -- the willingness to avoid making a particular response because of fear of what others might think or quickly change a response when others in the group appear to oppose a particular position.

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Focus Group Findings:

Participants React Emotionally And Intellectually To The Ocean

Respondents' initial reactions to the word "ocean" include both emotional images and factual information. They were quick to articulate the facts that they knew, such as " 70% of the earth is ocean. It affects the land and all the atmosphere," and it is a "source of a great number of living things."

Powerful emotional images were also used by participants, although distinct gender differences were apparent. Men saw the ocean as mysterious, powerful, and something to be explored. Women, on the other hand, viewed the ocean as beautiful, serene, and peaceful.

These and other positive associations with the ocean can be traced, in part, to participants' fond memories of vacations and childhood. Many participants revealed their ideal vacation destination to be a place on or near the ocean, such as Hawaii or Mexico. They recalled feeling small and insignificant as a child looking out on the vast ocean, combing the beach for seashells, looking for jellyfish, and being captivated by the majestic beauty of the ocean.

Respondents also knew that the ocean plays a significant role in our everyday lives, bearing on everything from weather, to our livelihood, to our food and water supply. They understood that the oceans are a vital resource, interconnected with all living things.

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Most Participants Need To Be Prompted To Admit That The Oceans Are In Trouble

It was only when they were asked to think of the negative things associated with the ocean that participants brought up pollution, overfishing, and endangered species. In contrast, participants immediately expressed knowledge of destruction and devastation when speaking of rainforests. While the media has succeeded in heightening awareness and concern, the same inroads have not been made with the ocean. As we suspected, we have a large task ahead to generate awareness and activism.

After some discussion, participants acknowledged the cause and effect relationship between our dependence on the oceans' resources and our exploitation of these resources. They accepted that the oceans are not infinite, and that human action can and is destroying them (see graph). Respondents accepted the connection between the condition of the oceans and our every day lives. They expressed a holistic view that without the oceans, life would cease to exist, therefore we need to protect them now. As one participant said, "..ecological systems and the ocean are interdependent on one another and if you take out just one piece of the chain, you know, this one link could destroy the whole chain. I don't think people realize how fragile those ecosystems are."

In terms of priorities, coastal participants placed ocean protection much higher on their list of concerns than those inland (see graph). Having daily contact with the ocean gave those respondents a more intrinsic connection to the water and a stronger desire to protect it, while "out of sight, out of mind" represented the way inland respondents reacted to the problem. Inland participants displayed less concern for the condition of the oceans, and believed their actions had less of an effect on the ocean environment than coastal participants. They had difficulty accepting the fact that their actions could directly affect the ocean when they lived so far from it.

Some non-environmentalists, in contrast, saw the oceans as vast and plentiful, with the ability to replenish themselves. They believed that no matter what we do to the oceans, mother nature will ensure their continued prosperity. These participants did not want to accept that anything as vast as the ocean could be harmed or destroyed. Perhaps one of the most vivid images from the groups was a response to this argument that analogized ocean pollution to putting a drop of food coloring into water and watching the whole jar change color.

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Medicinal Value, Overfishing and Seafood Contamination Are the Most Powerful Reasons for Ocean Protection

Virtually every message we tested increased respondents' concern about the oceans. Three messages proved most salient: raising participants consciousness about the potential benefits from the oceans' unexplored resources; the harm caused by overfishing, and the danger to human health caused by contaminated seafood. Across the groups, it was evident that some combination of these concepts will be most successful in capturing the public's attention and motivating them to change their own behavior and mobilize them to action.

Participants found the description of the ocean as "the last frontier" to be intriguing. The concept that the ocean is virtually our last unexplored territory played upon respondents' sense of adventure. The endless possibilities that lie in the oceans' vast resources peaked participants' curiosity. Coupled with the idea that the oceans hold enormous potential medicinal value, this proved to be a compelling reason for participants to want to protect the oceans. The possibility that a cure for AIDS or cancer exists somewhere beneath the waters elicited the fear that we are slowly destroying an essential resource, and with it, hope for the future. Participants were aware that the rainforests are the home to a vast array of medicinal resources and pointed to this as a reason for their support of environmental protection. The same case is equally potent for oceans and should be emphasized in our educational efforts.

When the specific problems our oceans face were discussed, the issue of overfishing was believed to be one of the most critical. One participant passionately described it as "rape of the oceans." Respondents were aware that fisheries around the country are rapidly being depleted, and that an enormous amount of by-catch fish are discarded and destroyed. They expressed the belief that overfishing is a disruption to the ecosystem, and if you pull one species out of the link, you will break the entire food chain. Participants agreed that overfishing pushes species into extinction, and this reality was cause for widespread concern. Each species is seen as an integral part of the entire marine environment, and therefore needs to be protected.

In addition, respondents were quick to point out the obvious -- once the fish are gone, fisherman will be out of business. In all groups respondents explained that we will be better off in the future economically if we control overfishing now. The industry is believed to be in danger, and participants agreed that the situation will only get worse, unless the proper controls are instituted immediately. Boston participants offered fishfarming and international regulations as possible solutions to the fisheries crisis. They cited examples where fishfarms had been developed on small scales, and felt this approach should be researched and expanded.

The dangers of seafood contamination were also a cause for serious concern among participants. Coastal participants had been exposed to warnings about contaminated seafood and were aware that seafood beds were repeatedly being shut down. When respondents heard from others that doctors asked women to avoid seafood during pregnancy, many expressed shock and frustration. The potential dangers to human health caused by contaminated seafood seemed to be an issue that everybody could understand, and therefore, an effective message.

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Other Ways Into The Issue Met Generally Positive, But Less Enthusiastic, Responses

Other messages tested in the focus groups elicited mixed reactions from participants. While inland participants expressed frustration over coastal overdevelopment, coastal participants admitted their desire to reside near the ocean. Inland respondents claimed that coastal development took away from animals' natural habitats, caused too much pollution, and should be limited. Participants from coastal areas did not disagree on these points, however they felt that people should be able to live where they want. Many of these respondents noted that they lived in coastal areas because they enjoyed living near the water and seeing the ocean every day, and were not willing to give that up.

Although the discussion of coral reefs conjured up beautiful images, few discussants were aware of their integral relationship to the ocean environment. A few respondents described the fragility of the coral reefs, explaining how the touch of a hand can kill this precious ecosystem. One participant pointed out that "people that snorkel...don't realize that you shouldn't even stand on them because you kill them when you stand on them. You break them and them and they take a long time to grow." Once participants realized how the coral reefs help to maintain a balance in the ocean environment, provide oxygen, and are home to hundreds of living organisms, they began to understand the importance of preserving them. While coral reefs seemed fascinating to participants, their destruction was not in and of itself one of the most convincing reasons to protect the oceans. It was difficult for participants to relate to these ecosystems since they had little, if any, contact with coral reefs.

The discussion of pelagics elicited stereotypical responses across the board. Tuna and swordfish were viewed as food and were not seen as something that needed protection. Whales, dolphins, and seals, on the other hand, were seen as threatened, and participants expressed concern and compassion for these animals. Opinions about protecting sharks were more ambiguous. They are generally not seen as food, or as cute and cuddly creatures. However, when participants heard how sharks are being senselessly exploited and killed, their level of concern rises a great deal.

Focus group participants were shown an excerpt from a video produced by The American Oceans Campaign. This medium proved to a be very effective communication tool because it captured participants' attention, used powerful images to move them emotionally, raised their concern for the condition of the oceans, and peaked their own, personal interest in finding solutions. Participants were captivated by the images of the polluted waters and those of the suffering animals, which led to an unleashing of emotions. They expressed frustration, anger and disgust in the senseless destruction of this valuable resource as well as serious disappointment in what they feel man has done out of greed.

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Rejection Of Personal Responsibility Was The Prime Impediment To Action

Respondents were not only hesitant to take personal responsibility for ocean pollution, but firmly believed that they did not engage in any behavior that ultimately harms the ocean. Instead, discussants tended to hold business and government accountable for the condition of the oceans. Respondents saw corporations, whom they accused of ocean dumping, as largely responsible for marine pollution. They were also quick to place blame on other countries, accusing Japan and Russia of exploiting the ocean for financial benefit. They expressed a need for more international regulations to keep foreign countries from polluting our waters. They saw ocean protection as a global problem, and believed the United States had taken the lead in protecting this precious resource.

This transference of blame was most evident when participants were shown a graph labeling the sources of marine pollution. The majority of participants were reluctant to believe that individuals were largely responsible for the condition of the oceans. Reactions to the figures, which cited land runoff as the major cause of marine pollution (44%), ranged from surprise, but eventual acceptance, to complete refusal to believe the numbers. The men were more cynical than the women, and many of the men could not even be persuaded to accept the figures which were presented as fact.

Some participants were eventually willing to accept responsibility, but were unsure of how they could personally make a difference. They expressed feeling helpless; that they were only one person and that individuals, corporations, and governments would continue to pollute and negate their efforts.

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Mobilization Requires Education And A Meaningful Plan Of Action

Education was an underlying theme throughout the focus groups. Participants repeatedly expressed that education was essential to effectively mobilize the public to action. They believed that the public at large does not know that the oceans are in danger and does not understand the problems. This is something that we will need to explore in greater depth when we conduct the survey. Respondents agree that education must start with our youth. They cited smoking and recycling as examples of how teaching children at an early age produces results. They felt that when you grow up with certain priorities, you carry those priorities into adulthood and they affect everything you do. If we teach children to respect our oceans when they are young, we will be creating a more proactive generation for the future.

In developing a strategy for activism, focus group participants agreed that efforts need to be both personalized and localized. Mobilization needs to start small, on the local level, where citizens can feel a personal connection and see the results of their actions. Local beach clean-ups were given as one example of the ways people can do their part on the local level. Once a local effort was proven successful, then it could be expanded to a larger scale. Participants seemed willing to change their behavior and activate on behalf of the issue, and said they would feel a strong sense of personal satisfaction knowing they were doing their part to protect the oceans.

One of the most significant findings from the focus groups is that no single medium will push Americans to care more about the oceans. As we have seen in the successful rainforest model, a multitude of vehicles were necessary to ingrain the message in the public's mind-set. While none of the participants had ever been to the rainforest, the constant barrage of images has increased the saliency of the rainforest as a priority for environmental activism. Participants traced their knowledge of the rainforests to everything from television, to newspapers, to documentaries, to movies, to National Geographic, to The Discovery Channel, to museums, and to organizations like Greenpeace. It is this repetitive, constant exposure that has made the rainforest issue so prevalent in people's minds. The fact that the oceans are so accessible to most Americans, should make it easier to increase public awareness about this resource.

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The Mellman Group's introduction and notes on the public opinion survey

This memorandum is based on a survey of 1300 adults nationwide, including a base sample of 900 adults and an oversample of 400 Americans residing in coastal communities. Telephone interviewing was conducted from May 10 through May 15, 1996. The statistical margin of error for the base sample as a whole is plus or minus 3.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The margin of error for the coastal oversample is plus or minus 4.9%. The margin of error for subgroups is larger. (see graph)

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Public Opinion Survey Results:

While Oceans Are Not Currently A Top Priority, This Is An Issue Waiting To Be Made

Destruction of our oceans is an issue waiting to be made. Even though the condition of the ocean is not now a top of mind issue, public awareness of the precarious condition of the oceans and their importance to us is quite high. Indeed, the data indicate that the oceans have the potential to become a powerful political issue.

At present, a strong latent, but not manifest, concern exists for the oceans. When asked to rate the most important environmental problems, the largest number of Americans cite toxic waste (33% most important), along with air pollution (31% most important) and water pollution (26% most important). Oceans being destroyed ranks lower on the list, with only 14% saying it is one of the two most important environmental problems (see graph).

At the same time though, most of the public attitudes required to create a major issue are in place. A plurality of Americans (49%) say the condition of the ocean is very important to them personally (see graph). This number is even larger in coastal communities, where nearly two-thirds (64%) say the condition of the ocean is very important to them personally (see graph). Another 29% say it is somewhat important, while only 5% say it is not too important, and only 1% answer not important at all. Among coastal environmentalists, 73% say the condition of the ocean is very important to them. But understanding of the ocean's significance transcends traditional environmental categories, with 45% of those who do not consider themselves environmentalists and who do not live on the coast, saying the ocean's condition is very important (see graph).

Over half (53%) of Americans think the environment has gotten worse over the past few years, and slightly more (58%) say the condition of the ocean has deteriorated (see graph). Only a very small number (6%) think the condition of the ocean has gotten better, and less than a quarter (24%) believe it has stayed the same. Those in the Pacific region are most likely to believe the ocean is in trouble (67%), as well as those residing in the West South Central region (65%). Residents of the Northeast, on the otherhand, are the least likely to say the ocean is deteriorating (47%). While people who live near the coast are more likely to be concerned about the health of the ocean and have greater awareness about ocean issues, they are not more likely than those inland to report the condition of the ocean worsening. Among people who live within five miles of the ocean, 56% believe the ocean is getting worse. In contrast, among people who live five to thirty miles from the ocean, 63% say its condition is worsening, and 58% of those who live over thirty miles from the ocean think the condition of the ocean is getting worse.

Most Americans believe the ocean is in trouble. Not even one percent of those surveyed report the condition of the ocean as excellent, and only 20% say it in good condition. Two-thirds (67%) view the condition of the ocean negatively. Over half (52%) view the destruction of the ocean as a very serious threat to the quality of life today, whereas an even greater number (63%) see it as a very serious threat ten years from now (see graph).

Americans are nearly unanimous in believing that the threat to the ocean stems from human activity. Only 10% believe the oceans are so vast and plentiful, there is little humans can do to destroy them. By contrast, 82% said the oceans are threatened by human activity. Americans recognize that humans are a threat to the ocean (see graph).

All this latent concern about oceans can be translated into significant political action. In a country where the majority of the public often wants the federal government out of their lives, 85% believe that the government needs to do more to help protect the ocean (see graph). In response to a question measuring single issue voting, nearly a quarter (23%) say they would vote against a candidate they agreed with on most issues and were of the same political party, if they disagreed with that candidate's position on protecting the ocean. These numbers are similar to those for abortion, making protecting the oceans potentially as salient an issue (see graph). A final and striking indication of interest in the ocean is that an overwhelming number (72%) believe funding for ocean exploration is a more important priority than funding for space exploration (17%) (see graph).

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Americans Believe The Ocean's Problems Stem From Many Sources, But Oil Companies Are Seen As A Prime Culprit

The publicity around oil spills in the ocean has undoubtedly led to the perception that these accidents account for the majority of the ocean's pollution (see graph). In fact, 81% of Americans believe that oil spills are a very serious problem. This is followed by chemical runoff from large corporate farms (75% very serious), improperly treated water from towns near the coast (69%) (see graph), contaminated seafood (65%) and trash, oil, and chemical runoff from streets (65%). In contrast, people believe the least serious ocean problems are air pollution from cars and industry
(40%), and the killing of sharks (30%).

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Oil, The Plate, And The Critters Are Key Ways Into The Issue

Chronic oil dumping in the ocean most clearly communicates that the oceans are in trouble, and makes people very angry. People see the fact that 3.25 million tons of oil enters the world's oceans each year as a strong indicator that the oceans are in trouble (71% "great deal of trouble"). This statement also makes a plurality (40%) feel very angry. Other meaningful indicators that the oceans are in trouble include overfishing and the loss of critical species (61% great deal), beaches being closed 5000 times in the last decade (60% great deal), and marine mammals being destroyed (58% great deal). Surprisingly, what makes people the most angry is shark finning, or cutting the fins off living sharks and then throwing the sharks back in the water to die (42% say it makes them extremely angry) (see graph).

Another avenue into the ocean issue is contaminated seafood. More education is needed on this issue, however. Currently, less than one-fifth of Americans don't eat fish or seafood (19% rarely or never), and taste is the primary reason (see graph). By comparison, virtually the same number (21%) eat fish or seafood several times a week. Many people do not know that the government classifies certain species as overfished or contaminated. Although more people believe that the government issues seafood contamination warnings (54%) than classifies species as overfished (37%), a large number do not know that the government does either. If they did know, however, a majority (62%) would be at least much less likely not to eat fish that was classified as overfished, and almost everyone (90%) would decline contaminated seafood.

In addition to these substantive issues, the notion of preserving the ocean for future generations is an important thematic. Over three-quarters, (84%) of Americans strongly agree that we have a responsibility to protect the ocean for future generations, and 82% strongly agree that the destruction of the ocean is a threat to the health of future generations.

Lastly, the scientific community may have a different opinion than the public on which issues are most important to the health of the oceans, however the public really does not care what scientists think. Over half (61%) believe that citizens and scientists disagree on which are the most important problems facing the oceans, and a plurality (42%) say that government should focus on citizens concerns over those of scientists (37%). Instead of trying to re-educate the public, the ocean community should focus its attention on those problems that citizens already believe to be the most serious, like oil spills or waste water runoff.

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A Personal Action Agenda Has The Widest Appeal

Americans are most likely to engage in personal action that will help protect the ocean and least likely to lobby. Of all the actions we tested, those that involve personal action are rated by the largest number as something they are "almost certain" to do. Roughly half (49%) say they would be almost certain to recycle used motor oil and 42% say they would be almost certain to pick up litter at the beach. Only 10% say they would be almost certain to attend council or state legislative meetings on ocean issues.

These personal actions are not only the most appealing, they are also believed to be the most effective. Nearly three-quarters (70%) think that recycling used motor oil would be very effective in stopping ocean protection. Almost two-thirds (63%) believe that picking up litter at the beach would be a very effective action.

(Who do people trust for information on ocean issues?)

There Is A Significant Group Of Potential Ocean Activists Waiting To Take Action

A cluster analysis of our data reveal five underlying segments within the American public:

Ocean Activists (20%) -- These people are willing to do almost anything to help the ocean. They will take personal action, support the adoption of tougher ocean laws, and join a community ocean organization. Relative to other clusters, these people are almost certain to take personal action, join organizations, and lobby. Practically everyone in this group, (88%) is almost certain to get involved in efforts to clean bays and harbors, and 81% are almost certain to contact politicians to urge action on ocean issues. Demographically, these people are strong environmentalists (44%), regularly recycle (65%), more Democratic (42% Democrat, 27% Republican), more female (55% female, 45% male) and less educated (47% HS or less).

Activist Non-joiners (16%) -- These Americans are willing to take personal action, and support the adoption of tougher ocean laws, but are not eager to join organizations. Among the actions that this members of this category are almost certain to engage in are recycling used motor oil (93%), picking up litter at the beach (95%), and only eating fish caught in an environmentally safe manner (86%). This group is comprised of an overwhelming number of females (63%) and whites (88%), and includes baby boomers (26%), and well-educated adults (34% college grads +).

Anti-Regulation/Pro-Personal Action (19%) -- This group is willing to take personal action, somewhat willing to join an organization, but does not support the adoption of new laws and regulations to protect the ocean. The majority (73%) are almost certain to recycle used motor oil and a similar number (67%) would pick up litter at the beach. Only a small number (15%) would support the creation of marine sanctuaries where no human activity would be permitted, and an even smaller group (10%) would be willing to pay higher water bills to build better sewage plants. This category is made up of older (21% 50-59 yr olds , 25% 60+), political centrists (moderates 24%).

Muddled Masses (27%) -- These people are categorized by a lack of any fervent consistency. They are willing to take some personal actions but not others. They are not willing to join organizations. This group would be most likely to recycle motor oil (33%) and pick up litter at the beach (25%), however these numbers are significantly smaller than among the previous groups. Even fewer, (13%) would support laws restricting development near bays, or regulations to limit development along coastlines (11%). These people do not want to join an organization. Only 1% say they would join a local environmental organization, and 0% report willingness to join a national environmental organization. Demographically, this group is made up of more males (55%), adults without college education (41% HS or less), conservatives (41%), and a plurality who regularly recycle (59%).

Aquatic Apathetics (16%) -- These Americans are unwilling to be involved in any effort. The name says it all with this group. There is a slight chance of getting them to recycle motor oil (29% almost certain), but only 3% say they would inquire whether seafood is contaminated before they bought it. Not even 1% of people in this group would join an organization, or support regulations to limit development along coastlines. This group is overwhelmingly male (56%), conservative (56%) and Republican (46%).

In sum, the field is ripe for the ocean community to take action. Americans are ready and willing to accept the fact that the oceans are in danger. They are also ready and willing to do something about it. Indeed, the pre-requisites are in place for ocean issues to become a significant public issue. Concern is high, but information is low. In addition, there is a large group of potential activists willing to take in this issue if properly mobilized.

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1996 SeaWeb