CORVALLIS, Ore. - A fast-track “listening and learning” process that drew nearly 800 people to meetings on Oregon's coast has produced more than 1,700 separate comments on the question of establishing marine reserves in the state's territorial waters.
The comments are due for delivery next week to the state's Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC), which will use them to help formulate recommendations for addressing Gov. Ted Kulongoski's goal of creating a limited number of marine reserves – areas of the near-shore sea where fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited - off the Oregon coast.
Oregon Sea Grant, a marine research and outreach program based at Oregon State University (OSU), was asked by OPAC to come up with an objective process for presenting information about marine reserves to, and collecting comments from, coastal residents, businesses and interest groups to aid in the council's policy development. The OSU program was given just six weeks to complete the task.
“They came to us because we've done this kind of thing before,” said Flaxen Conway, Sea Grant Extension community outreach specialist who has spent most of her career working with fishing and timber communities on issues related to changing natural-resource economies. The program has a 40-year record of bringing objective methods and processes to discussions of sometimes controversial public policy concerning the ocean and coast.
Conway helped design the outreach effort conducted by Ginny Goblirsch, a veteran Sea Grant Extension agent who was brought out of retirement to help with the project, and Jeff Feldner, Sea Grant Extension fisheries and seafood technology educator. Assisting with technical presentations were Patty Burke, Marine Resources Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Selena Heppell, an associate professor with the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Within days after Sea Grant agreed to handle the OPAC outreach effort, Goblirsch and Feldner were traveling up and down the coast talking with “all different types of people” - local government leaders, fishermen, conservationists – to come up with strategies for getting the public involved in a process with such short lead time.
"We asked local people to help us plan the forums so that local expectations could be met," said Goblirsch. "The main concern was that people wanted to know more about the (marine reserves) process, and they needed to feel confident that their views and suggestions would be incorporated into it. People wanted to be heard."
To ensure that all perspectives and interests got a fair shake, the Sea Grant team designed a strict protocol for the way the meetings would be conducted, and how information would be gathered.
“You design meetings based on what you want to get out of them,” said Conway. “I think some people came to ours expecting to be able to stand up to a microphone and speak their minds. The problem with that approach is that those who speak the longest and loudest get heard, but a lot of people won't even pick up the mic. We wanted to make sure everyone's voice got heard, and all their comments were collected and given equal weight.”
To do that, the organizers developed five questions that would be asked in each of eight community meetings:
What community impacts (cultural, social and economic) should be considered when proposing a marine reserve?
How can marine reserves benefit, not disrupt, existing economic and recreational uses of the ocean?
What do communities need in order to be adequately involved in providing recommendations to OPAC for marine reserves?
One of the reasons cited for establishing marine reserves is the need to create areas of refuge so we can learn more about our nearshore resources including fish stocks and habitat.
What types of research are needed to better protect and manage our nearshore?
Are there specific attributes (unique circumstances, places, things) about this region's section of the coast (shore to three miles) that would work or not work for siting a marine reserve?
The questions were posed in February to the 755 people who turned out for meetings in North Bend, Garibaldi, Newport, Florence, Reedsport, Harbor, Port Orford and Warrenton. At each meeting, participants got a short briefing on the history and science of marine reserves – what they are and why they're being considered in Oregon. They were given information about how they could stay involved and informed during the state's decision-making process. They spent the rest of the meetings writing down responses to the five questions, plus general comments on the subject.
In all, the team got back 1,689 comment cards; some people also handed in prepared comments they'd brought to the meetings, and still more arrived by e-mail. The formal comment period ended on March 14.
Back on campus, a group of students was brought on board in early March to enter all comments, in their entirety, into a database that will become part of the outreach report to OPAC.
“We've got the comments organized by question and by place,” Conway said. “That will help give the council a sense of both the similarities and differences of opinion in different communities ... Beyond that, and some thematic grouping, we're not doing a lot of analysis or summarizing. That's not our job – the idea isn't for us to do the analysis, it's to get this information to OPAC and have them go through it in detail and use it to make their decisions.”
Sea Grant is due to deliver the outreach report at the March 27 and 28 OPAC meetings in Newport. The full text of the report, including all public comments, is expected to be made publicly available on the Sea Grant web site by Tuesday, March 25, when OPAC is scheduled to meet. More information can be found on Sea Grant's marine reserves outreach page at seagrant.oregonstate.edu/outreach/reserves.html, and on the official state marine reserves site at www.oregonmarinereserves.net.