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Public Perceptions of Aquaculture Show Lack of Ocean Literacy

Article: Froehlich HE, Gentry RR, Rust MB, Grimm D, Halpern BS (2017) Public Perceptions of Aquaculture: Evaluating Spatiotemporal Patterns of Sentiment around the World. PLoS ONE 12(1): e0169281. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169281

Fish cages in a near-shore operation in Velfjorden, Brønnøy, Norway by Thomas Bjørkan, wikipedia

Aquaculture is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. A 2014 report by the UN-FAO estimated global freshwater and marine farming to constitute 44% of all fisheries production, and have been increasing at a rate of more than 5 times wild-caught fisheries since 2009. Most of this development has been in the near-shore and in-land fish-farming industries, with major advances in salmon and trout farming in recent years.  However, as these areas continue growing, certain constraints in space availability, land prices, land-use conflict, and variety of environmental concerns are beginning to limit their expansion.

Enter Off-Shore Aquaculture.

In-land and near-shore aquaculture operations (like the one in the photo above) present a number of risks to their local environments, including the potential for local water quality contamination, disease transfer to wild populations, and increased invasive species risks. While many of these risks can be and are sufficiently reduced by good management practices, negative public perception of aquaculture tends to focus on one or a combination of these issues. Some of these risks, disease transfer and pollution in particular, are regarded by scientists to be significantly reduced in off-shore aquaculture operations, which use floating or submerged cages in deeper waters. Yet, public discussion around off-shore aquaculture still focuses on these environmental concerns. In this paper, Froehlich et al. analyze newspaper headlines from 88 developed and developing nations and compare sentiments between them to evaluate public opinion around off-shore marine farming and aquaculture in general. They also looked at government-led public opinion polls in two countries, the United States and New Zealand, as case studies to assess how the public discusses these topics. Here, I outline the trends identified in the ways people around the world are thinking and talking about aquaculture.

Tuna being weighed in Greece. Most of the Tuna consumed in the Western world comes from wild and farm-based industries in Asia, by Tom Oats, wikipedia

Negativity and a Lack of Knowledge in Developed Nations

While Froehlich’s study found a general tendency towards growth in positive sentiments toward aquaculture across all countries over time, they also found stark differences in the degree of knowledge and sentiment held by members of the public between developed and developing nations. Though mostly positive as a whole, newspaper headlines were more negative in developed countries, with Canada having the highest proportion of negative sentiment towards all kinds of aquaculture as well as the most polarized split between positive and negative opinions. In the US, it seems a number of drivers combine to influence a relatively negative outlook on offshore aquaculture in particular, including where in the country the commenter lived, their education and experience with science, trust in government, industry, and science, and personal experience with previous environmental disturbances, none of which are directly related to aquaculture. Froehlich believes these demographic and historical differences may be key to understanding regional differences in public opinion around aquaculture. The 2010 GOM Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for example, left such a lasting impression on coastal communities in the US that Froehlich suspects it may play an important role in perpetuating the negative sentiment there associated with the term “off-shore”. The authors observed that choice of wording may be important. Public commentary on aquaculture in the US tends to use general and repetitive terms like “off-shore”, “disease”, and “pollution”, which may reflect a high degree of public awareness in the US food and environmental sectors but a low understanding of the specific industries. In contrast, public commentary in New Zealand showed a greater tendency towards economic considerations and a focus on specific risks to things they value, like protected areas and species. So there is some uncertainty in developed nations around the actual versus perceived threats of aquaculture, particularly in the US, and there may be some pre-existing biases against the language used in the industry.

Not in My Backyard

Satellite image of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Recent environmental disasters in the US may affect how the public views off-shore activity in unrelated industries. by NASA/GSFC, wikipedia.org

News headlines that notified people of development plans for specific aquaculture operations were more likely to elicit a negative response in the government public opinion polls, as opposed to news of recent policy changes. This could mean that while the public in developed nations are gradually coming around to the idea of off-shore aquaculture and fish farming in general, they don’t want to see these operations popping up in their own countries or states, which could have important implications for where developed nations get their seafood from. Froehlich also found that most of the negative sentiment voiced in these comments came from private citizens and environmental groups, with very few of the fishing community – the people with the right “backyards” – offering comment. While the researchers didn’t look into developing countries with the same level of detail simply due to lack of public opinion availability in these areas, they did find that newspaper headlines tended to be more positive, with benefits to the economy being central in positive perception.

Aquaculture Going Forward

While this study is limited by its focus on English speaking regions, lack of public comments from developing nations, and exclusion of comments from social media, which is an increasingly important source of news for many people, it also serves as the first global investigation into public perception around different types of aquaculture. Sustainable growth in off-shore aquaculture as well as in the older forms of aquaculture around the world will require significant input and participation from the public. After all, it doesn’t matter how sustainable an industry becomes if its consumers don’t trust the product or process. Understanding public perception will therefore be key to informing strategic activity in these industries. Froehlich offers a number of suggestions for incorporating public opinion into the strategic growth of off-shore aquaculture around the world, including:

  • The development of new and innovative information streams to effectively communicate aquaculture-related information to the public, as through government and industry partnerships with ocean literacy groups (such as the EU Commission approach to Blue Growth)
  • Better communication and clarification of real local risks
  • Improved understanding of why some groups, like the fishing communities, are not participating in the public comment process

Researchers, industry, and the public alike would benefit from further study into how aquaculture is viewed by different stakeholders. Effective communications may be just as important as technological advancement in supporting future sustainable growth in off-shore fish farms, aquaculture in general, and food production as a whole.


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