When I visited Cascade Locks this summer I found a half-dozen booths where salmon was sold alongside fresh cherries, just picked that morning. One of the fishers, a young Yakama man, said that he didn’t feel strongly about the sea lions. “They have to eat, too,” he grinned.
This summer a cadre of students worked with me on drilling through the discourse over the salmon and sea lion conflict at the Columbia River. Fishers and state organizations want to rid the river of the pinnipeds to the objection of the Humane Society and some other interest groups.
The students decided the salmon should have the upper hand and felt the news stories were framing the issue in favor of the sea lions rather than the salmon. They also felt tribes were getting short-shrift in the coverage.
As we dug deeper we discovered that reporters earnestly tried to “get both sides” but that Indians remained in the background. State governments and the Humane Society are at the forefront of the story, although the students felt that the salmon story is inextricably tied to Native tribes.
How do publics feel?
Folks living along the Columbia, interviewed for a scientific study, did indeed report that Native American tribes were central to the salmon-sea lion issue, and that the Humane Society was only moderately involved. Yet, in examining the coverage, the students found that the Humane Society was pivotal.
While coverage tended to blame the sea lions (according to our study of the news), the survey showed that politicians, Bonneville Dam, commercial fishermen, the federal government and environmental laws—along with sea lions—were also to blame for the loss of salmon.
Tribal governments and Native fishers received some blame.
It’s impossible to gauge from news coverage alone whether publics favor killing the sea lions.
We found that publics are split: about 20% strongly agreed that sea lions should be killed and about 20% strongly disagreed. The remaining 60% were split, too, meaning that public opinion is mixed.
So when it comes to the conflict, what we can say with certainty is that public opinion is widely varied. No one group can claim that lay publics are on one side or another.
I’ll be presenting our findings in the coming year. Stay tuned.