Public perception and coastal pollution at identified beaches in South Wales
Considerable controversy exists in the world with respect to coastal quality. A multidisciplinary project was initiated to examine the health effects of bathing in sewage contaminated coastal waters, using a popular beach resort, Whitmore Bay, close to the cities of South Wales; and to explore ways of measuring public perception of coastal pollution at selected beaches in South Wales including Whitmore Bay, Langland Bay and Cefn Sidan. The research also investigated the regulatory framework responsible for the sustainability of coastal tourism and the effectiveness of beach award flags as marketing tools in the promotion of resorts.
Current legislation addresses coastal pollution in terms of physical health criteria with little regard given to aesthetic quality of sea/landscape and psychological well-being of the beach user. It is necessary to overcome the dichotomised approach to beach management by crossing the boundaries between the physical and social sciences in order to take an holistic view of the coastal scene, accounting for environmental, political, economic and social aspects.
An epidemiological/microbiological investigation was conducted at Whitmore Bay during the summer of 1995. Statistical modelling, using Linear Logisitic Regression, indicated swimmers to significantly increase their chance of contracting an illness in comparison to non-swimmers and also identifed non-water related factors to have a confounding effect; no interaction was observed. These findings were in congruence with other major studies. Beach questionnaires were distributed to elicit information on the activities, health and socio-demographic characteristics of the subjects during the day of the survey (n=1276). A telephone interview schedule was utilised 10 days post the beach survey to investigate the differential in illness rates between the cases and controls (n=585). Water sampling was carried out on the days of the health risk survey. Although, high counts of both E.coli and faecal streptococci were recorded, reaching an average of 3400 and 440 per 100m1 respectively, no dose response relationship was observed between morbidity rates and bacterial indicator density.
A semi-structured questionnaire was employed to obtain data on beach user perception to coastal pollution and beach award schemes for both the 1995 and 1996 surveys. The 1995 questionnaire served a dual approach running simultaneously with the epidemiological-microbiological analysis (N=1276). The 1996 survey questionnaire was developed from the original 1995 questionnaire, and distributed at an additional two beaches in South Wales, Langland Bay and Cefn Sidan , (n=821). Results of both surveys showed that beach users were acutely aware of coastal pollution both land based and marine and suggested that public awareness of the different beach award schemes is low. Of the different types of award systems included on the questionnaire, the European Blue Flag Award gained highest recognition (26-30%), but even those that identified with it often had a misunderstanding of its true meaning. If consumers misinterpret the meaning of the flag which flies on a designated beach, then the designation of the beach will do little to offset consumers' concerns about health risks.
To support the questionnaire interviews, litter surveys, formed around the Norwich Union Coastwatch study were conducted and Secchi disc readings were also taken at the three beaches to obtain data on both beach and marine aesthetic indicators. High quantities of litter were recorded, in particular plastics and polystyrene, deposited mostly by visitors. Also, higher levels of turbidity proved to negatively impact the perception of water quality and have an effect on beach user behaviour.
Results of the study highlighted the importance of understanding the cognisance of the beach user in evaluating beach and waterscapes, taking account their experience and expectations, and the vacuum which exists between decision makers and the general public. A conceptual model was designed to describe the beach management process creating a flexible management framework which encompass all key variables, their interdependency and facilitate their measurement.
The implication to management is to challenge the ineffective intellectualised approach currently in operation, identifying all stakeholders in the planning process, including the public and private sectors and the consumer.