Wild salmon are as culturally important to British Columbians "as the French language is to the people of Quebec," according to a new poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion.
The poll, commissioned by two B.C. conservation organizations, measured the concerns of British Columbia on a broad range of environmental issues, with a focus on wild salmon, which are in decline on the West Coast.
The survey of more than 800 randomly selected adults found that 70 per cent agreed with a statement that maintaining and restoring salmon runs in B.C. is as important to British Columbians as protecting French is to Quebeckers.
"The response to that question shows how strongly people identify with wild salmon in this province," said Craig Orr, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, which funded the poll with Skeena Wild Conservation Trust. "The salmon resource is not a trivial thing in British Columbia. It's engrained in our culture and in our economy."
Dr. Orr said the poll was done by the groups to find out if the support of British Columbians for protecting wild salmon has been flagging with all the bad news in recent years about declining stocks.
He said the response makes it clear that people in B.C. continue to put high value on salmon and that they want to see government do a better job in protecting the resource.
In one question, 51 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that the "quality of my life would decrease if wild salmon runs continued to decline or disappear."
Dr. Orr said he was encouraged that 86 per cent agreed that economic growth should not come at the expense of wild-salmon habitat, and that 89 per cent said laws to protect salmon habitat should be more strictly enforced.
"It's obvious that people value wild salmon pretty highly," he said. "People think government has to do a better job and they want to protect what we've got, even if it costs more in terms of forgoing development or paying higher taxes."
Only 52 per cent agreed that higher taxes would be justified, "if that was necessary to protect wild-salmon habitat," but 69 per cent said the federal government should maintain its policy of no net loss of salmon habitat, even if that meant restricting growth and development.
Vicky Husband, a leading environmentalist in B.C., said she was excited by the results of the poll.
"It confirms how much people care about salmon," she said. "They are important to our culture, to who we are as a people and to the environment we live in."
She noted that the responses to several questions showed British Columbians do not accept that small runs of wild salmon should be put at risk, in order to allow for the harvest of larger runs of salmon.
In some rivers, small runs of wild salmon return at the same time as much larger populations of hatchery enhanced stocks. When the Department of Fisheries and Oceans allows commercial harvests on so-called "mixed stock fisheries," fish from the small runs can inadvertently get killed.
A large majority, 77 per cent of those polled, disagreed with the statement that "the extinction of small salmon runs is acceptable as a tradeoff to maintain the commercial fishing industry's current practices."
The poll also showed that the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs (72 per cent), contamination of soil and water by toxic wastes (68 per cent), air pollution and the depletion of fish stocks (both at 66 per cent) are the top environmental concerns for British Columbians.
The Angus Reid survey was done online with 806 randomly selected British Columbians, on April 19-20, from a sample that is considered representative of the entire adult population. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 per cent. The poll was released Monday.