CORVALLIS - Oregon coast residents have strong opinions about the decline of coastal salmon and proposed methods to restore the fish, and their views suggest that fishery managers and the state's restoration planners have work ahead to gain public acceptance for salmon recovery efforts.

These are some of the key insights from a new survey of 500 Oregon coast residents conducted by researchers Court Smith and Jennifer Gilden at Oregon State University. The survey is the largest systematic sampling of coastal public opinion about salmon undertaken in recent years. It was funded by Oregon Sea Grant, a marine research and education program at OSU.

"Coastal residents as a whole have not had very much say in the formulation of the state's Coastal Salmon Restoration Initiative," said Smith, an OSU professor of anthropology and the survey leader. "Their views are divided and are often not in synch with values reflected in the Governor's restoration plan."

The Sea Grant study, conducted in November and December, surveyed a random sample of all Oregon coast residents and a smaller group of identified "salmon opinion leaders" - coastal watershed council and elected officials. Surveys were mailed to more than 800 coastal residents and 195 leaders.

Key findings of the study, according to Smith and Gilden, include:

  • The state, rather than the federal government, is favored to lead salmon restoration.
  • The public and fishery managers have widely different views on several issues, including the effect of predators such as seals and sea lions on salmon, the role of hatcheries, and the importance of wild fish.
  • There is strong support for compensating private landowners for protecting and restoring salmon.
  • Nearly half of the respondents (47 percent) are willing to volunteer a half day or more a month on salmon restoration work.
  • The coastal public receives its salmon information mainly from television and radio (62 percent) and by word of mouth (60 percent).
  • The public has no greater than moderate confidence in institutions and organizations dealing with salmon - a confidence level of 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. In general, federal fish and wildlife agencies and the OSU Extension Service fared better than environmental groups and city and county planners (which rated higher than federal courts or Congress).

The distance between public and professional opinion was clear in response to a question which asked the relative importance of certain factors for the future of salmon, Smith said.

While most professionals would argue that reducing predators like seals and sea lions, increasing hatchery production, and eliminating ocean driftnets fall decidedly on the less important end of the scale, the public thinks that reducing marine mammals and stopping ocean driftnetting are very important.

Opinions also contrast on hatcheries. While nearly all salmon biologists now argue that hatchery production should be decreased and changed to avoid harming wild fish runs, only 20 percent of respondents agree. About 38 percent of the rest of the respondents think it's "not important at all" to decrease hatchery production.

"The public apparently views the salmon decline mainly as a production problem," said Smith. "They see hatcheries as at least part of the solution."

In reviewing the 500 responses, Smith and Gilden wanted to see if there was any factor which would help leaders of salmon restoration understand what would motivate coastal people to restore the salmon. They examined variables like age, income, and education but found that the most critical factors in shaping people's opinions about salmon were their values and beliefs.

A key question noted that trade-offs between the environment and the economy could be involved in salmon restoration and asked respondents to place themselves on a scale from favoring the environment to favoring economic considerations. Forty percent of respondents said their priority was "restoring and protecting environmental conditions even if there are negative economic consequences," while 16 percent favored the economy over the environment. Most people, 44 percent, favored an "equal priority."

Those preferences repeatedly shaped other opinions. For example, the majority of those who favored the environment think that endangered species laws don't need changing, while those who favor the economy think that they do. Those on the environmental side are much more willing to volunteer time to help restore salmon than are those who favor the economy.

Such responses have importance for those who are trying to promote salmon recovery efforts, said Gilden.

"Coastal residents will interpret and evaluate plans and information according to their beliefs, " said Gilden. "To the extent that a plan captures the values of coastal residents, acceptance is more likely."

Smith advises salmon recovery planners to think of their task as not "selling the Governor's plan," but rather "addressing resident concerns."

Educating and working with the public to increase their understanding of the issues - a much longer process than merely mounting a public relations or information campaign - is likely to be needed in some cases, said Smith.

Despite the considerable attention on salmon decline in the news media and within government, many coastal residents are not engaged by the issue. This interpretation comes from phone calls to about two-thirds of those who did not respond by mail.

In talking personally with 150 people, Smith identified five groups among those who did not respond: those for whom salmon restoration is simply not a priority concern; people who feel they are not knowledgeable enough to respond to a survey; a "small but vocal" group who oppose or are hostile to "government" and equated the survey with government; and a generally older group who felt that their opinions were not as important as those of a younger generation and such decisions should be deferred to them.

Finally, some non-respondents were thought to be seasonal residents of the coast and simply not at home.

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Court Smith, 541-737-3858