VICTORIA – Asking the public what its opinion is on a certain subject is an iffy business, because the answers can be strongly influenced by the way the questions are asked.
One of the more odious examples of trying to extract the desired answer by phrasing the question in a deliberately misleading way was the last Quebec sovereignty referendum, which made absolutely no mention of separation.
Still, properly asked, a question put to the public, it is believed, can yield important information about how people feel about a certain issue which, in turn, enables governments to develop policies the public will support.
Well, a recent survey of public awareness of and attitudes toward he B.C. salmon fishery, its problems and possible solutions, should make governments think twice before spending more money on opinion polls.
The survey was commissioned by the B.C. Fisheries Secretariat and conducted by Environics Research Group Limited.
The objectives of the study were: to determine how concern over the survival of the salmon fishery ranks as a resource issue among British Columbians; to measure awareness of current efforts to make the salmon fishery sustainable; to find out whom British Columbians blame for problems with B.C. salmon stocks; to determine what steps should be taken to make the salmon fishery sustainable and to determine attitudes toward he federal Mifflin Plan.
Environics surveyed 703 British Columbians, including 173 residents of the coastal and northern Vancouver Island region. A sample of this size yields results considered accurate within plus or minus 3.7 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
The first thing the B.C. government can learn from the results of the survey is that it can’t depend on public awareness to formulate policies, at least not any policies regarding fisheries.
Only about nine per cent of British Columbians rank fisheries, including shrinking salmon stock, as high on their list of environmental issues, compared with 33 per cent who expressed alarm over forestry-related matters.
You’d have expected more public awareness of the B.C. fishery problems, considering the publicity surrounding the issue. Then again, global warming, an issue not to be trifled with, was mentioned by only one per cent.
Once the pollsters zeroed in the fishery issue, 63 per cent of those surveyed said they believed the B.C. salmon fishery was in poor shape. Ten per cent thought it was in good shape. They probably don’t read the papers or watch the news.
Another zinger came when people were asked in connection with which other issue they had read, seen or heard about B.C. salmon during the past few months.
After all the kerfuffle and publicity surrounding the proposed reduction of the B.C. fishing fleet, only three per cent of the respondents credited the (federal Fisheries Minister Fred) Mifflin Plan with having brought the salmon fisheries issue to their attention. Another three per cent said they had picked up something about salmon in connection with fish farming.
After being told about 12 different possible threats to B.C.’s salmon fishery, a whopping 71 per cent said American over-fishing was a very major or somewhat major threat. Pollution was chosen by 67 per cent. Yankee-bashing is alive and well.
Fifty-three per cent said provincial government mismanagement was a very major or somewhat major threat to the salmon fishery which, considering that the province has next to no jurisdiction over fishery, doesn’t speak too well of the level of public awareness.
Based on the fact that more than half of those surveyed blamed the B.C. government for the mess the salmon fishery is in, you’d think that giving the province more responsibility over the resource would be the furthest thing from people’s minds. Not so.
Fifty-one per cent want the provincial government to have total or primary responsibility, while another 36 per cent want equal power-sharing with the Feds. Only three per cent want the province to have no say at all. Well, at least the majority got its wish. A new federal-provincial deal, just signed, gives B.C. a lot more say over fisheries.
With goofy results like that, you tell me if we should spend money on surveys.