An Ocean of Opportunities

An Overview of The Ocean Project's Public Opinion Research into Inspiring Visitors and Advancing Conservation


In support of our partner zoos, aquariums, and museums (ZAMs) and other visitor-serving organizations, The Ocean Project has conducted national public opinion research on ocean issues since its formation in the late 1990s. This document offers a summary of that research including new data from 2014, with an emphasis on research helping ZAMs, as well as the wider conservation community, in efforts to advance ocean and climate conservation. 

The research has led to a dramatic increase in our collective understanding of public opinion about the ocean. Beginning with an initial snapshot of qualitative and quantitative research, the investigation expanded in 2008 into a series of advanced surveys using leading-edge approaches to gather more than 100,000 opinions and regularly tracked changes. 

Together with the help of IMPACTS Research, and in collaboration with Monterey Bay Aquarium and National Aquarium, The Ocean Project’s research has developed into what is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive public opinion study ever undertaken on behalf of any environmental concern. The research also helped illuminate the critical role that ZAMs can play in advancing ocean and climate conservation, with guidance as to how these institutions can engage their audiences more effectively for conservation outcomes and impact.
Americans strongly support the idea of teaching children ways to be "green friendly."

Public agreement with the following statements provides a sense for how people are increasingly interested in “going green," and looking to aquariums, zoos, and museums less to be "educated" about the problems, and more for suggestions as to be part of the solutions. Agreement scores are based on a scale from 0 to 100. Scores of 70 or greater indicate very strong public agreement with a statement.  Click on the statements below to see the levels of agreement. 
I lead a “green-­‐friendly” lifestyle.
It is important to teach children ways to be “green-­‐friendly.”
Taking a young child to an aquarium or zoo gives the child an “edge” or “advantage” in their academic or intellectual development.
Aquariums should suggest or recommend certain behaviors or ways for the general public to support their causes or missions.
A good way to contribute to the conservation of the world’s ocean is to become a member of an aquarium.
Cultural and scientific organizations are good sources of accurate information about ways to protect and conserve the environment.
I primarily visit cultural and scientific organizations to learn and/or be educated.



In 1998, The Ocean Project, with funding from The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, partnered with the firms of Belden Russonello & Stewart1 and American Viewpoint to provide ZAMs with an understanding of national public opinion about the ocean. The goal at the time was to inform efforts to better engage the public, increase awareness and raise concern. 

The resulting report – an unpublished, but widely distributed paper entitled, “Communicating About Oceans: Results of a National Survey” (October 1999) – was based on a review of prior research, a set of focus groups, and a national telephone survey (n=1500). It established what is widely considered the baseline for public opinion on these issues.
Emotional connections work: People are inspired by stories about the impacts on specific animals and particular places, rather than facts and figures.

The baseline research identified “zoo and aquarium goers” as a high potential audience, a group more likely to recognize the oceans’ vulnerabilities, and understand that individual actions impact ocean health. Other top findings from that initial round of research included the following:
  • The ocean is viewed as powerful, vast, relaxing, and fun.
  • Little awareness exists of ocean health, especially beyond the beach.
  • Protecting the oceans is seen as important but not urgent.
  • While they have only superficial knowledge of the oceans and their functions, Americans strongly agree that the health of the oceans is essential to human survival.
  • The ocean is viewed as vulnerable to lasting damage from humans. People see industry as the main culprit and do not see individual actions as having a great impact.
  • The motivations behind concern for the ocean are based on personal values, such as concern for the well-being of family and future generations, rather than factual knowledge.
  • The “balance of nature” values framework resonates strongly
  • Americans are willing to support actions to protect the ocean.



In 2008, with funding from NOAA, The Ocean Project – in collaboration with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the National Aquarium – began working with IMPACTS Research on a new round of comprehensive research. Again, the intent was to inform efforts to better engage the public, while noting that those efforts were increasingly aimed less at raising awareness and more at inspiring action

With that in mind, the project was much larger in size, and the results much richer in detail. More than 22,000 responses were obtained, primarily online, in the summer and fall of 2008, and the resulting report, “America, the Ocean, and Climate Change: New Research Insights for Conservation, Awareness, and Action,” was presented in June of 2009. The report offered an updated understanding of national public opinion about the ocean, climate change and related issues, along with new insights into how people think about those issues, where they get their information, and what they expect of ZAMs. 

Emphasizing your conservation mission can grow public trust and attendance: People expect and appreciate recommendations from aquariums, zoos, and museums about how to help with solutions to environmental and ocean conservation issues.
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Upon initial review the results from this round of research did not seem encouraging, as the survey showed that most of the top five findings from 1999 still held true. While the public continued to express awe and appreciation for the ocean, they still had little awareness (let alone knowledge) of the ocean or the issues affecting ocean health, and still did not appear to see a strong need for ocean conservation. Yet looking deeper in the data more hopeful signs could be seen. Foremost among those more hopeful signs were the following:
  • While issue awareness remained low and top-of-mind urgency was still lacking, the public, when asked, expressed underlying support for the concept of conserving the ocean and the environment.
  • The public expected ZAMs to engage them on these issues, and trusted their guidance as to what should be done.
  • Tweens, teens and young adults, as well as those from households where English was not the primary language, were more likely than others to be both interested in and willing to act on ocean conservation and environmental issues.
  • In a significant break from the findings of the earlier research, this survey found a renewed belief, especially among young people, that individual actions could have a positive impact, exemplified by an expressed willingness to change seafood eating habits to help save threatened species



This more recent round of research – unlike the initial research which offered only a single snapshot in time – was extended in order to track changes over time. With multiple surveys over the subsequent months and years, understanding of public opinion, and especially engagement opportunities, expanded and deepened. Perhaps most important, the tracking results confirmed the way in which people expect and trust zoos and aquariums to engage them on these issues, and underscored the higher levels of interest from younger generations. The tracking surveys also offered new insights that are helping to inform efforts aimed at inspiring action. These insights included the following:
  • While Americans’ knowledge of ocean issues has remained consistently low, interest in ocean conservation can be highly variable.
  • High interest in conservation often can be correlated with newsworthy events, especially those that show visible impacts on particular places or specific species, as evidenced by a robust spike of public concern during the disastrous oil spill at Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. (See also graph)
  • Americans appear to be reluctant to accept that the ocean as a whole is in trouble, likely due to a persistent perception that the ocean is “vast and powerful,” and therein is assumed to be resilient.
  • Public concern about climate change has risen and fallen, but has yet to be connected with ocean impacts.
  • Americans increasingly believe that they live “green” lifestyles, yet are lacking information from trusted sources that can inform their own actions.
  • Americans tend to believe that the United States is a leader on climate change and ocean issues, and that the oceans that touch the U.S. – the Atlantic and the Pacific – are much healthier than those that are further away, such as the Indian Ocean.
The findings from the tracking surveys reinforced that zoos and aquariums are trusted and can play an important role in ocean conservation. The findings also suggested that this role can be maximized by relaying the stories and recommending steps that can help individuals turn their concern for the ocean and interest in “being green” into actions that truly help conserve the places and animals with which they connect emotionally.

The tracking surveys showed how news events can activate people’s underlying interest in protecting the ocean and its animals.  Click on the following statements to see the spike in public concern for the ocean that surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And notice the inverse effect the disaster had on public perceptions of US leadership in ocean conservation. Again, agreement scores are based on a scale from 0 to 100, with scores of 70 or greater indicating very strong public agreement with a statement.
US AVG The world's ocean is endangered
US AVG Protecting the world's ocean is the most important part of protecting the environtment
US AVG Protecting the ocean should be a priority for the US government
US AVG The US is a global leader on the topic of ocean conservation



To complement national research conducted by IMPACTS, The Ocean Project – working in partnership with 12 leading aquariums and science museums – conducted a set of onsite visitor intercepts. While these tablet-powered surveys were focused on better understanding public opinion about the emergent issue of ocean acidification, they also yielded some valuable insights into the broader topic of public engagement in conservation efforts.  The most notable of these findings were:
  • Visiting an aquarium, zoo, or science museum appears to initiate a spike in concern for the ocean, similar to seeing a news story, and inspires an emotion-based interest in helping the animals and conserving their habitats.
  • The public not only expects and trusts, but also appreciates conservation information, especially about the actions that they can take to be a part of the solution, believing receipt of such guidance is part of a satisfying visit.
With all of the aforementioned research in hand, The Ocean Project then launched in 2013 an “Innovative Solutions Grants+ Program” to provide aquariums and zoos with grants and pro bono consulting for projects aimed at putting the key research findings to the test. The results to date are pointing to the following:
  • The opportunity to inspire action appears to be limited and fleeting, with a preference for easy-to-understand and easy-to-implement steps that can be completed while onsite or online.
  • Interactions with aquarium, zoo, or science museum staff appear to play an important role in inspiring actions and ensuring the success of a conservation “ask.”
  • Visitors are highly motivated by having their local institution striving to “go green” with them (to tackle issues such as climate change or plastic pollution).This approach may prove to be as motivating as helping with actions to protect particular places or a specific species.

The research continues to underscore the importance of engaging people 13–25, and their agreement with statements such as these shows how they tend to be the most interested and willing to act, with a high potential to influence others.  Agreement scores are based on a scale from 0 to 100, noting that scores of 70 or greater indicate very strong agreement with a statement, while scores closer to 60, much less so.
I am "green-friendly"
I care a great deal about current environmental issues
Protecting the ocean should be a priority for the government

Latest Findings


The most recent round of research by IMPACTS – with a sample size of over 11,000 respondents and gathered over nine weeks during June-August 2014 through online, telephone, and in-person surveys – updated and reinforced some key findings, including the following:
  • The public remains inspired by the ocean. While people feel that they are well informed about environmental issues (gradually increased since 2008), they remain largely unaware of actual ocean issues.
  • Most people are unwilling to accept that the ocean as a whole is in trouble, and most still do not make the link between climate change and the oceans.
  • People generally care about the environment and have positive feelings about the environmental movement and what it has accomplished.
  • People view ZAMs as good sources of accurate information about environmental topics, including climate change and the oceans. They still believe there are better sources on the Internet, especially audiences under the age of 25.
  • People have a very high level of trust in ZAMs, a lower level for NGOs, and the lowest level of trust for government, especially at the federal level.
  • The public remains interested in being “green.” People are especially keen on the idea of teaching the youngest generations ways to be “green,” and see taking a child to an aquarium or zoo as a way to give that child an advantage in their academic development.
  • Increasingly, people recognize that climate change is an important issue, but they still tend to see it as more of a long-term and distant problem.
  • Individuals question their own ability to impact climate change, and they tend to see the solutions as coming from technology.
  • Confidence in the power of individual actions has declined significantly since 2008. This may be due to recognition that national and international action is needed to adequately address climate change.
  • The importance of ocean conservation and the environment are better understood in national security and personal health and wellness terms, especially with younger audiences under 25.
  • The public sees membership in a zoo or aquarium as a good way to contribute to ocean conservation.
  • People are eager for recommendations and strongly believe that ZAMs should suggest or recommend certain behaviors or ways to help, but also need actions appropriate to the scale of the issues, especially for younger audiences.

The latest round of research underscored the potential for "doing well" by "doing good" as while visitation to ZAMs has not been keeping pace with population growth, there is evidence that those institutions that highlight mission are outperforming the rest.

Summary & Recommendations


This research initiative is allowing ZAMs and others involved in our partner network to be grounded in solid data in achieving their missions. We will continue to work with our partners to test the research and improve visitor engagement and communications for measurable outcomes. ZAMs are making a difference, but we need to do more, individually and collectively. The Ocean Project looks forward to promoting and collaborating with our partners as the key anchors for conservation leadership in their communities.
People want to be part of a larger effort: Connecting the conservation efforts of aquariums, zoos, and museums to what visitors can do in a “together we can” approach can help reach the scale necessary to effect meaningful change.
Despite an enormous collective effort in communicating with the public, we have not yet succeeded in convincing enough people that ocean issues are urgent and deserve attention. We need to do more, and the research shows that ZAMs can be bold. The research not only tells ZAMs that the time is right to recalibrate our efforts to engage and inspire the public in conservation, but it also reassures us that our doing so is likely to be rewarded with higher levels of trust and attendance.


The Ocean Project would like to recognize the individuals and organizations that made substantial contributions to this research and outreach initiative to help advance ocean conservation. 

We would like to thank the primary advisors for this initiative: Jim Hekkers, Managing Director, Monterey Bay Aquarium; Kathy Sher, Senior VP/External Affairs, National Aquarium; and Ocean Project founder, Paul Boyle, Ph.D., Senior Vice President for Conservation Research & Development and Policy, AZA. 

Several others also served as advisors over the years, including Jackson Andrews, Director of Operations and Husbandry, Tennessee Aquarium; Cynthia Vernon, Vice President of Education and Guest Programs, Monterey Bay Aquarium; Tom Schmid, President & CEO, Texas State Aquarium; and Chris Andrews, Ph.D., Head of Merlin Animal Welfare and Development – U.S. Thanks, too, to John Nightingale, Ph.D., President, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre; Vikki N. Spruill, President & CEO of the Council on Foundations; Greg Stone, Ph.D., Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist for Oceans, Conservation International; Patrick O’Callaghan, Director, Deliberate Impact; and Bert Vescolani, President/CEO, Saint Louis Science Center. Special thanks to Julie Packard and John Racanelli for the ongoing support of the research project by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and National Aquarium. 

Special thanks to IMPACTS Research for conducting the national research pro bono since 2008, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), specifically NOAA’s Office of Education, for their strong support starting in 2007. Additional financial support for The Ocean Project’s research and outreach initiative is provided by The Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation and a foundation that requests anonymity. The Ocean Foundation serves as the fiscal sponsor for The Ocean Project. 

Report written by The Ocean Project team: Douglas Meyer, Alyssa Isakower, and Bill Mott.

Photos courtesy of Adventure Aquarium, Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Aquarium, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Southeast Region,
Vancouver Aquarium and Kaitlyn Shorrock of the California Academy of Sciences.
  1. Peoples’ underlying concern for the ocean is heightened by visits to ZAMs, as well as newsworthy events.
  2. When visiting a ZAM, people expect, trust, and appreciate information about conservation.
  3. People are much more likely to be interested in information about the ways they can be part of the solution, and much less interested in being educated about the problem.
  4. People are inspired by emotional stories about the impacts on specific animals and particular places, rather than facts and figures.
  5. Interest inspired by a visit can wane quickly, so consider action steps that can be started, if not completed, while visiting.
  6. Integrate the Internet and social media into visitor experiences to reinforce your conservation messaging and action steps.
  7. Focusing on engaging those ages 13-25 will achieve the most impact since youth tend to be the most interested and the most willing to act, with a high potential to influence others.
  8. “Walking the talk” as an institution resonates with audiences, especially when visitors and members are positioned as part of the effort in a “together we can” approach that also helps get to the scale necessary to effect change.