Coastal Alabama Community Attitudes Assessment

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Coastal Connections: Estuary Reflection

Fall Issue, 2011

Last summer, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program hired Research Strategies, Inc. to undertake a Coastal Alabama Community Attitudes Assessment to provide insight into what stakeholders consider the most pressing environmental challenges. Five hundred and fifty respondents answered a series of questions related to environmental values, quality of life factors, economic contributions and impacts, and major issues of concern. This assessment will be used to craft a series of community meetings over the coming months, as we seek input to guide the next iteration of the Mobile Bay Estuary Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan.

Questions were posed to randomly selected individuals aged18-74 who were heads of households and had lived in their residence for at least two years within residential zip codes of Mobile and Baldwin Counties. The average age of respondents was 53.48 years with average household annual income of $53,000and average households of 2.44 individuals. Forty five percent were employed full time, 29%were retired and eight percent were unemployed. The random sampling methodology used indicated that 46% of the respondents live within 6 blocks or less from a seashore, bay, bayou other waterway.

Of those interviewed lifestyle indicators show that Mobile County residents have a higher tendency for recreational fishing, while Baldwin County residents enjoy boating and water sports. However, Baldwin County residents regard “tourism” and “recreational fishing” as the leading economic generators impacting their quality of life. In Mobile County, “recreational and commercial fishing” are the two strongest economic generators contributing to their quality of life.

When asked which was more important - the environment or economic growth - 61% recognized the need for balance between environmental protection and economic growth, versus 26% who though the environment was more important and 13.27 % who thought that economic growth should come first. Breaking this data down, Baldwin County residents favored environmental protection 12% more than Mobile County residents, and, as might be expected, those living within six blocks of a water body gave higher priority to the environment by 13%.

Most of Mobile and Baldwin County residents have mixed feelings about Sea Level Rise. Over 60% believe to some degree that Sea Level Rise is real versus approximately 40% who did not. Mobile County residents and residents living within six blocks of a waterway have a slightly stronger belief that sea level is rising.

Can you say es-cho-aree? Of Baldwin County residents interviewed, 49% understood what an estuary was. Only 37% of Mobile County residents demonstrated a correct understanding. However, a review of the qualitative answers provided indicates that many interviewed had some understanding of what estuaries provide, including answers such as, “where fish hatch their eggs,” “where small fish and crabs grow up to be adults,” “where we raise little fish,” and “where water systems converge.”

On a scale of one to five, with five being most important, respondents scored the economic importance of Mobile Bay to the State of Alabama at 4.62, with residents from Baldwin County residents rating its importance 7.79% higher than those from Mobile County. When asked how they viewed the overall health of the bay, (one = poor to five = excellent), Baldwin County residents scored it lower (2.99) than Mobile County respondents (3.18). However, both indicated that the Bay’s health at about average.

Interestingly, when asked about the overall quality of life in their specific county, Mobile County residents rated their quality of life 5.67% better than Baldwin County residents, with a combined average of 4.22. Residents living within six blocks of a waterway indicated slightly higher quality of life (4.40).

Resoundingly, the feature having the most positive impact on quality of life in and around Mobile Bay is “fishing or fisheries habitats” (50%) with those living within six blocks of a waterway rating that slightly higher (52%). “Beaches and waterfront” (23%) rated second and was valued 12.84% higher by those living greater than six blocks from a waterway.

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An overwhelming 34% rated “pollutants from industry” as the number one environmental problem having impacting Mobile Bay and its estuaries, followed by “trash” and “septic failures and sanitary sewer overflows.” However, when asked to compare their answer to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill regarding which would have a more long-term effect on the environmental quality of Mobile Bay, 57% rated the oil spill as having a greater long-term effect. In retrospect, it appears that the answer to this question may have been skewed by the events unfolding last summer, as these interviews were taking place. Within the different problem categories, Baldwin County respondents rated “flooding and erosion” (15%) and “septic failures and sanitary sewer overflows” (22. %) as more serious problems than Mobile County respondents (10% and 13% respectively).

In a related question, 33% of respondents believe that among infrastructure projects “coastal building and industrial development” had the greatest impact on the quality of our estuarine system.

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This research was undertaken in part to gauge how the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program could target activities to address community environmental concerns in the coming years. Although respondents felt that Industry was the biggest environmental polluter, they felt that the two most important issues to address are ”trash, pesticides, urban residue” and “water clarity.” Interestingly, these issues all relate in part to how stormwater runoff is (or isn’t) managed and reflects the stress that stormwater is putting not only on area aesthetic values but also on ecosystem health. Note that the third most important issue is public outreach and education,- a key directive for the Program in terms of moving towards a “tipping point” for changing behaviors.

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Overall, the Community Attitudes Assessment provided a valuable community perspective of what the perceived environmental issues are at this point in time. The data found in this report will be used to frame a new Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan that integrates environmental protections into planning for community growth so that what the community values most about our coastal environment is conserved into perpetuity. Our goal in developing the priorities for this next plan is that each objective resonates with the community, is achievable and realistic, is based in science, and, above all, contributes to the long-term viability of the coastal ecosystems that underlie our quality of life.