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    What America Thinks
    An Ocean of Concern

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Dec. 8, 1997

    Americans believe the seas are sick and see the declining health of the world's oceans as a direct threat to their own quality of life, according to a new national survey. The poll also found that many Americans take the health of the oceans personally: Half of those interviewed said the condition of the oceans was a "very important" personal concern, and nearly a third said it was somewhat important to them.

    And more than half said the United States should spend more on exploring the oceans than it spends on space exploration.

    "Americans believe the oceans are being abused, and that the greatest threat to the oceans' health stems from human activity," according to analysts from the Mellman Group, a Washington, D.C., research firm that conducted the poll. "We are, they believe, both taking too much out of the ocean and dumping too much in."

    A total of 1,014 randomly selected adults were interviewed by telephone for the survey, which was sponsored by SeaWeb, a program attempting to focus attention on the condition of the world's oceans sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

    The poll found that only one in five Americans rate the quality of the oceans as "excellent" (1 percent) or "good" (20 percent). "When a mere 1 percent call the condition of the oceans 'excellent,' it is obvious that Americans understand that we are doing more harm than good to our oceans," Vikki Spruill, executive director of SeaWeb, said in a statement accompanying the release of the poll.

    Eight out of 10 said we are dumping too much into the oceans in the form of waste, oil and agricultural runoff. And half said that "too much" is being taken from the seas in terms of commercial fishing, oil drilling and other such activities, while just one in seven disagreed and the remainder said they did not know.

    Overall, six in 10 said the condition of the oceans has "gotten worse" over the past few years, while just one in 10 said things had improved and the remainder reported no change. But even a majority of those who believe the condition of the oceans has improved in recent years said we're dumping too much into the seas.

    The survey found that most Americans feel a personal, if not spiritual, connection with the sea. There also is "near-unanimous recognition of the role the seas play in providing food, climate control and rainfall," the Mellman analysts wrote.

    Seven in 10 said oceans are a critical source of food protein, two-thirds said the seas played a "very important" role in providing rainfall, and just as many saw them as essential for regulating the world's climate.

    Even though most Americans appeared to know quite a bit about the role of the seas, they believe there's still much we don't know about the world's oceans. "Perhaps even more illustrative of the oceans' cachet with the public is the support of ocean exploration over space funding," the Mellman analysts wrote. "When asked to trade off charting these two unexplored frontiers, fully 55 percent say that ocean exploration should be the priority, while just about a third (35 percent) choose space" – a result even more surprising because the survey was conducted in late August in the wake of the successful Mars landing.

    Americans realize they're part of the problem. More than seven in 10 said improperly treated sewage, chemical runoff from our streets and "the way we use water in our homes makes a real difference in the condition of the oceans." And a majority said that even recreational uses of the oceans, such as boating and going to the beach, also cause damage.

    "Nearly three-quarters agree that human beings are also in trouble as a result of the seas' problems," the analysts wrote, and a majority said "the destruction of the oceans represents a 'very serious' threat to the quality of life today." And fewer than one in 10 said the oceans' ability to heal themselves "means that human beings are immune from the ocean's troubles."

    "In sum, Americans' awareness of the vital role the ocean plays in human health and well-being is high," the Mellman analysts wrote. "They believe that the condition of the seas is worsening and understand that human activity threatens and degrades the quality of life."

    Although most of those surveyed expressed concern about the world's oceans, another recent survey found that relatively few Americans worry about global warming.

    A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, conducted on the eve of the Kyoto conference on climate change, found that 24 percent said they worried a "great deal" about global warming or the "greenhouse effect," down from 30 percent in a similar poll in 1990.

    But a majority said the United States should be willing to join with other countries in setting standards to improve the global environment, and a majority even said they would pay more for gasoline to reduce global warming.

    But the public also strongly rejected "the notion that the United States should bear more of the burden of repairing the environment than poorer countries, even when the consideration that these nations have not caused as much damage as the U.S. is raised," the Pew Center analysts wrote.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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