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Enviros’ “survey” promotes
locking up large areas of ocean based on questionable science
The idea of establishing large areas of ocean,
inaccurately and misleadingly referred to as marine protected areas, in
which extractive activities like fishing are totally banned has gained
a significant amount of acceptance in anti-fishing circles over the past
five or so years. The sentiment, as expressed stridently by select members
of the marine research and conservationist communities, is that if these
areas, which are in actuality no-take rather than protected, are established
on a large scale, they will be able to save the world’s oceans from the
ruin that is otherwise imminent. In an ongoing assault through a series
of articles and interviews, we’ve been inflicted with a parade of apparently
independent scientists and conservationists in one breath bemoaning the
fate of our oceans and in the next extolling the virtues of extensive areas
being turned into no-take zones.
What is a Marine Protected Area (MPA)?
Executive Order 13158 (05/26/00) defines marine
protected areas (MPAs) as “any area of the marine environment that has
been reserved by Federal, State, territorial, tribal, or local laws or
regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural
and cultural resources therein.” Plainly, MPAs have been and continue to
be in widespread use in U.S. and international waters by fisheries managers
for decades (see the box at the top of pg. 3). Our “conservationist” colleagues,
however, seem to be confusing MPAs with no-take zones, areas from which
all resource extraction - particularly fishing - is banned.
However, the available pool of support
for no-take zones apparently wasn’t considered adequate to advance the
agenda of a group of environmentalist organizations which have been acting
as the cheerleading squad for the no-take zone campaign. A coalition of
these groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation, the Ocean Conservancy,
Environmental Defense and World Wildlife Fund Canada, therefore hired Edge
Research, a Washington, DC firm that “provides marketing, planning, and
strategic communication efforts” to “corporations, non-profit organizations
and governmental clients” to give their cause even more of a boost.
Edge Research accordingly conducted a survey of
750 residents of the New England states and the provinces of New Brunswick
and Nova Scotia, supposedly to gauge the level of acceptance of the idea
that the public should be willing to accept sacrifices – those associated
with an extensive series of no-take zones – in order to “save the oceans.”
|“Reporting on a survey by a special-interest
group is tricky. For example, an environmental group trumpets a poll saying
the American people support strong measures to protect the environment.
That may be true, but the poll was conducted for a group with definite
views. That may have swayed the question wording, the timing of the poll,
the group interviewed and the order of the questions. You should examine
the poll to be certain that it accurately reflects public opinion and does
not simply push a single viewpoint.” (from National Council on Public Polls -
20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results. S.R. Gawiser and
Needless to say, the results of this
survey were enthusiastically reported to any receptive media outlets by
the various organizations that have hitched their wagons to unfounded gloom
and doom predictions of the future of the world’s oceans due to seafood
harvesting. Those results were that the public would enthusiastically and
overwhelmingly support locking fishermen out of large areas of ocean and
would be willing to accept the attendant sacrifices. From a press release
by the Conservation Law Foundation on February 16 “A poll shows the public
strongly favors more fully protected marine areas in New England and Atlantic
Also needless to say – at least for us if not
for the reporters who looked no farther than the environmentalist’s press
announcements – such a survey, with its far-reaching public policy implications,
deserves a serious level of scrutiny, which we afforded it.
Before looking at the survey itself,
we visited the Edge Research website ().
While the apparent intent of the environmentalist organizations that hired
Edge Research was to present their work product, the poll and its interpretation,
as an objective “scientific’ effort, in their own words the people at Edge
were hired for anything but their objectivity. In their words “Strategic
market research allows you to know your audience – what they want to see
and hear, as well as how, when and where they want to see and hear it….
We work with our clients to ensure they are performing the right research
to achieve their objectives.” (We also noted with interest that Lisa Dropkin,
one of Edge Research’s four listed “principals,” was previously the Director
of Research at Pew’s SeaWeb.)
While the idea of performing research to allow
clients to achieve their objectives is certainly understandable from a
marketing perspective, it sure isn’t science and it’s a couple of orders
of magnitude removed from objectivity.
Then, getting to the poll, as far as
this or any other is concerned, we’ve found four questions helpful in considering
its validity. Why was it designed/commissioned? Are the questions and the
support material in it “value neutral?” Is the material in it factual?
Are its results interpreted accurately?
Why the poll?
The fact that a self-described “strategic
market research” firm designed and conducted this survey and interpreted
the results speaks eloquently to the first question. Edge Research isn’t
in business to tell its clients - in this case the Conservation Law Foundation
and several other organizations with an extensive track record of actions
that have cost the commercial fishing industry millions of dollars - what
the target audience - the citizens of New England and Atlantic Canada –
wants. It’s to tell the clients how they can "sell" their product – in
this case banning fishing from large areas of ocean. The Conservation Law
Foundation isn’t interested in finding out how the public feels about excluding
fishermen from areas they have worked in for generations, apparently, but
in actually doing whatever is necessary to exclude them – and Edge Research
was hired to provide them with a tool to do it.
Can wording of questions bias poll results?
How questions in a poll are worded is as important
as sampling procedure in obtaining valid results. Questions are checked
for balance, that is, are they worded in a neutral fashion without taking
sides on an issue? Does the question represent both sides of an issue fairly?
(from National Council on Public Polls FAQ)
Are the questions in it value-neutral?
In their question examining which factors
should take precedence when considering “restricting economic activities
in the ocean,” respondents could chose between “short term costs in lost
jobs, higher prices for goods and services and impacts on families whose
livelihood depends on ocean resources” or “long term benefits of healthier
and more plentiful resources or fishing and increased tourism to restored
ocean places that will improve life for coastal communities and future
generations for years to come.” Some choice!
All things being equal, it’s hard to imagine how
anyone would choose costs rather than benefits, particularly if the costs
were represented as being paid by a specific group (almost undoubtedly
a group not represented in the small sample) for a short time, and if the
benefits were represented as being accrued by the entire community for
both “future generations” and “for years to come.” While this seems a great
way to get the kind of answer you’re looking for (77% of the Canadians
and 76% of the New Englanders favored the benefits over the costs), it’s
hard to imagine that the same ratio of responses wouldn’t apply just as
well to a wide range of similarly biased “costs and benefits” questions
restricting economic – or most other kinds of – activities anywhere.
Is the material in it factual?
In the survey the pollsters wrote “Currently,
we protect less than 1% of our ocean waters, To preserve this beautiful
resource, we need to protect more.” The idea that such a miniscule amount
of ocean is “protected” would be sure to guarantee that a large proportion
of the people polled provided the desired response; that more of the ocean
needed to be protected (and so responded 62% of the Canadians and 53% of
the New Englanders).
Are the results interpreted accurately?
But, as anyone who has even a rudimentary knowledge
of fisheries management off New England and Atlantic Canada knows, far
more than 1% of these waters are already protected. Tens of thousands of
square miles are closed to all or to particular types of fishing either
permanently or seasonally. These closures, which are in place to protect
particular fish stocks, marine mammals, spawning aggregations, migration
pathways, sensitive habitat, research areas, etc., etc. affect scallopers,
groundfish fishermen, longliners, gillnetters, recreational anglers and
pot/trap fishermen. But it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s easier to sell
the idea of protecting more of the ocean from fishing once you’ve made
the case that virtually none of the ocean is presently protected, isn’t
it? So, regardless of the actual facts, that’s the case that was made.
The respondents were asked to rate the
overall health of the ocean and the commercial fishing industry locally
(New England or Atlantic Canada). The possible choices were Excellent,
Good, Fair and Poor (or Don’t Know). On these questions the pollsters wrote
“Regionally, residents are divided in their assessment of the overall health
of the ocean: 46% rate it positively (5% excellent, 41% good) and 43% rate
it negatively (36% only fair, 7% poor).” Then, regarding the commercial
fishing industry, “59% say the health of the fishery is in only ‘fair-to-poor’
shape compared to 28% who think it is in good shape."
Rate “Overall health of the ocean”
Health of the Commercial Fishing
The pollsters at Edge Research – or,
as is becoming increasingly evident, “marketers” is a much more appropriate
description – have arbitrarily (and kind of amazingly) decided that the
“fair” responses belonged in the negative category. This goes against any
use of the word “fair” that we’re familiar with, but, to be on the safe
side, we checked our understanding of the meaning of the word with the
definitions offered in several dictionaries. In its context in the survey,
“fair” is defined as “adequate” or “average” or, and this might be stretching
a bit, “sufficient but not ample.” In no way do any of the definitions
we came across indicate anything remotely approaching negative or substandard.
And it’s impossible to imagine that the respondent’s understanding of the
English language didn’t reflect that. Yet, by arbitrarily using the terms
“only fair” and “fair-to-poor” the “pollsters” conveniently interpreted
all of the “fair” responses as negative.
How about if, instead, the Edge Research team
had interpreted “fair” as all of the rest of the English speaking world
understands the word? Then they would have written something on the order
of “80% of the Atlantic Canadians and 81% of the New Englanders sampled
felt that the health of the ocean was average or better and 58% and 63%
felt that the health of the fishing industry ranged from excellent to adequate.”
This would hardly appear to be the message that
the Conservation Law Foundation and Edge Research’s other clients were
looking for, nor would it be a message that supported either their contention
that massive areas of the ocean needed to be blocked off from traditional
users or that we were on or beyond the verge of an ocean “crisis.” So what
did the Edge Research “pollsters” do? Apparently, they redefined the word
“fair.” It seems like at this level of polling the old adage “you get what
you pay for” is really taken seriously.
Summing it up, it appears that we have
what is being represented by the staff of The Conservation Law Foundation
and their cronies as an objective poll that shows that “the public” fully
and enthusiastically supports their contention that the oceans and the
fishing industry are in dire straits and will only be saved by the institution
of no-take areas and other equally stringent measures, and that same “public”
approves of the attendant “short term costs” that such measures will entail.
But that “objective” poll is based on value-laden phraseology, on misstated
facts and on distorted and tortured interpretations of elementary English.
The first question that comes to mind is “why
do the Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental Defense, the Natural
Resources Defense Council and Edge Research’s other clients feel this is
necessary?” Anyone who has spent any time enmeshed in the fisheries management
process, either at first hand or through following the literature, is aware
that representatives of these organizations go to great pains to let it
be known that they are there representing the public’s interests. If they
are there “for the public,” one might hope that they have at least an inkling
of why “the public” wants them there.
Yet here we have them invested in a project -
supposedly a “public opinion” survey - ostensibly to find out what the
public thinks, but with all the appearances of being designed and interpreted
to do something else entirely.
If you want to find out what the public thinks,
you do it with a carefully designed and administered survey. You do it
by asking questions with no built-in biases. You do it by providing the
respondents with accurate information. And you do it by objectively interpreting
the responses you receive.
If, on the other hand, you want to sell
a product or a position, you toss all of the objectivity and all
of the rigorous analysis out the window. In the words of Edge Research,
their job is to ensure that their clients are “performing the right research
to achieve their objectives.” And that’s OK if your organization is selling
widgets or doodads to the wary consumer. We’re all aware of the liberties
that advertisers take when extolling the virtues of their products over
those of their competitors, caveat emptor keeps us on our toes and
consumer protection regulations keep us out of trouble. But when your organization
is selling “public” policies to a trusting public, shouldn’t you be looking
to a higher standard?
(Note: The Survey material is available on the
CLF website at )
Click here for a printable (Adobe Acrobat) version of this FishNet
Other Sites of Interest:
FishNet Issue on Pew's role in the MPA campaign
Junkscience ("Junk science" is faulty scientific
data and analysis used to used to further a special agenda)
ActivistCash - Find out where various activist
groups are really getting their funding
Site of Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Sceptical
"Massive Wealth Drives Green Agenda" by Tom DeWeese
in Blue Ribbon Magazine
Environment, Inc. series by Tom Knudsen in the
the Fishermen’s Dock Co-op, Lund’s Fisheries, Atlantic Capes Fisheries,
Viking Village Dock, Export, Inc., Agger Trading Corp. the Belford Seafood
Co-op and Hi-Liner Fishing Gear.