Table of Contents
Coral Reef Crisis: Causes and Consequences
Can Ecosystem Management of Coral Reefs be Achieved?
Global Solutions to Global Trade Impacts?
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Ocean Attitudes 2001: Conservation through Consumer Action
Note: The following article summarizes a PowerPoint presentation that is also available online. The findings presented here are a compilation from polls commissioned by SeaWeb, as well as surveys undertaken by other organizations. Information on data sources may be obtained from the authors.
Setting the Context
To assess public attitudes regarding a variety of ocean issues, between 1996 and 2001, SeaWeb has worked with professional market research firms. The results reported here represent a subset of the opinions expressed by survey respondents. In all cases, the surveys were conducted using industry-standard market research techniques and included sample sizes that allowed for accurate calculation of statistical significance.
Most Americans care about the oceans and believe that the health of oceans is threatened. Fifty-nine per cent of those responding to a 1999 poll rated the overall health and quality of the oceans as "only fair" or "poor," while less than one-third thought the oceans are in "good" or "excellent" condition. The same poll showed that over half believe that the condition of the oceans is deteriorating, having gotten worse in recent years. An even larger percentage ’Äì nearly three-quarters ’Äì evaluate the condition of coastal waters as negative. Coastlines are where the majority of people interact most directly with oceans.
Studies consistently show that the public -- caring most about human health -- views pollution with greatest concern and as the topmost threat to ocean health.
Communicating about specific threats to coral reefs and solutions is complicated by public confusion about reef systems. Approximately four in ten Americans either believe that fish breeding grounds and coral reefs are found throughout the oceans (versus only in certain places, as is the case) or do not know.
Towards Coral Reef Conservation and Consumer Action
However, there is strong support for establishing marine reserves. Respondents in the 1999 poll included protection of ocean life and habitats -- and coral reefs specifically -- as some of the top goals for marine protected areas. These were placed well above such other goals as responsible management for oil exploration/drilling and commercial fishing, maintaining clean areas for swimming and diving, and providing recreational areas for boating. Nearly three-quarters of the public would support prohibiting the collection of tropical fish and corals from protected areas.
The public clearly is concerned about the state of the world's oceans. The public believes that humans can do lasting damage to the oceans, and supports efforts to strengthen ocean protection. However, many do not believe that their personal actions have much impact on ocean health. On the other hand, taking environmental action as a consumer -- for example, recycling motor oil, cleaning up litter, eating only environmentally safe fish, and buying non-overfished seafood -- is more popular than other kinds of individual action (such as contacting politicians and joining an environmental group).
Indeed, there are substantial numbers of people willing to modify their purchasing behaviors to help oceans. For example, many strongly support actions to protect oceans, even if it meant paying more for seafood. Sixty-two per cent of respondents in one survey said they would not eat fish classified by the government as overfished, and 44 per cent would only eat fish caught or farmed in a way that protects oceans.
Americans are increasingly connecting to conservation through consumerism and there is growing momentum to use consumer markets to drive ocean conservation.
For coral reefs, there are two areas of consumer concern -- food fish and marine ornamental fish, coral and live rock. To address the consumption of fish, the Seafood Choices Alliance and other organizations are working to create a sustainable food fish industry. To address the trade in ornamentals, the Marine Aquarium Council seeks to create a sustainable trade through certification of marine ornamental fish.
In addition to formal opinion polling, SeaWeb conducted an informal survey of 77 aquarium hobbyists attending a conference of the Marine Aquarium Societies of America. The results of this survey suggest that there is great interest in using purchasing behavior to support reef stewardship. Most respondents indicated they want to support an industry based on quality and sustainability. Some hobbyists currently seek out suppliers of healthy animals, and are "very interested" in the source and collection methods of the fish they purchase. More importantly, they are willing to pay more for fish that are certified as being caught and handled in an environmentally responsible way. While based on a small, self-selected sample of hobbyists, these results point to a positive atmosphere for providing information that would allow marine aquarists to make environmentally sound choices.
There is a need to better understand the public's knowledge about and attitudes towards coral reefs so that campaigns and communications can be crafted more effectively. There is the opportunity to use consumer initiatives as a tool to augment legislative and enforcement solutions to the coral reef crisis. This will require communicating the link between reef conservation and informed consumer purchases -- a difficult task in the face of public confusion about coral reef ecosystems and how they work.
However, saltwater aquarium hobbyists and the trade can be a force for change. And, with growing interest in linking consumer behaviors to conservation, there needs to be continued investigation of how environmentally responsible aquaculture -- whether for food fish or ornamentals -- can relieve pressure on coral reefs without unintended consequences for reef-based economies.
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