campaigns that oversimplify complex fish farming issues have left British Columbians in a fog of competing politicized agendas, contested science and misinformation, says a new study.
By Fabian Dawson
Campaigns by environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) that oversimplify complex aquaculture issues have left British Columbians caught in a fog of competing politicized agendas, contested science and misinformation.
“The net effect has been to create and perpetuate a climate of public skepticism and opposition that has spilled over into the political realm,” states a new study by researchers from the University of Victoria and the University of New Brunswick.
The study entitled ‘Public attitudes towards marine aquaculture in Canada: insights from the Pacific and Atlantic coasts’ was conducted between April and September 2016. A total of 648 respondents are included in the study—220 from coastal communities on Vancouver Island, and 428 from coastal communities in Canada’s Maritime Provinces—New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
Governance of the aquaculture sector has been described as a ‘wicked problem’ that is difficult or impossible to solve owing in part to incomplete and/or contradictory knowledge, and opposing perspectives amongst community, industry and government stakeholders, the paper stated.
“When considered in the context of other major sectors of the Canadian economy (e.g. agriculture, forestry, mining, oil and natural gas), all of which have significant ecological impacts, the aquaculture industry has a positive story to tell.
Protein production is more efficient than any other animal production system, the industry has a lower carbon footprint than any another animal production system, and production is irrevocably dependent upon a healthy ocean environment.
Arguably, the aquaculture industry is being held to a much higher standard
“This can, in part, be attributed to ENGO campaigns that have been very effective in messaging and reducing complex issues to simple tropes that have become engrained in the aquaculture discourse,” the paper said.
There are many areas on Canada’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts that have suitable growing conditions for diverse species groups in all sectors of the aquaculture industry. Canada’s federal and provincial governments have identified aquaculture as having potential to be an important economic driver within rural and coastal economies, and have adopted plans and strategies to support the industry.
While these factors might suggest a bright future for aquaculture, the path ahead is anything but smooth.
The study’s findings suggest that the prevailing tendency to split the public into pro and anti-aquaculture camps should be reconsidered.
“Public impressions of aquaculture on both coasts are much more nuanced. When aquaculture is distanced from the highly politicized ‘salmon farming’ issue, the more global aquaculture opinion questions reveal that the majority of respondents support aquaculture.
This reinforces the need for industry to develop more effective communication strategies in order to improve stakeholder understanding of their production systems, and the efforts being made to operate in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.
“That said, increased public confidence in the industry will not come about unless stakeholders believe that their concerns and priorities are understood and valued,” the authors stated.
Canada’s coastline of 202,080 km represents 25% of the world’s coastline. Unlike many parts of the world, it is, for the most part, undeveloped and is recognized as having large potential for aquaculture.
The study comes in the wake Federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson warning that the polarized debate over fish farming in British Columbia is threatening a viable and sustainable food source for the world.
“I think we hear a lot of the time a fair bit of concern in the media and from individual persons about the potential effects that aquaculture may be having on wild salmon, he told provincial business leaders at the recent Vancouver Island’s Economic Alliance Annual Summit in Nanaimo.
“And there is a debate even around a lot of the science where scientists on one side will say one thing and scientists on another side will be saying another thing… a very confusing situation for the average person that is trying to actually figure out what is right and what is wrong.”
“At the end of the day protein needs to come from somewhere and so what we need to do is ensure that we are getting to the point where we can actually legitimately say, and convince the average person on the street, that aquaculture is being done in a manner that is environmentally ecologically sustainable such that you have social license, or whatever you want to call it with an industry that could be bigger than what we have today,” he said.
“I will tell you personally that I believe that aquaculture is part of the solution,” said Wilkinson.
What you think about aquaculture, depends on where you live
99% – As expected, there is a high level of awareness about salmon farming – 99% on the Pacific coast, 87% on the Atlantic. These high levels of awareness can likely be attributed to the high profile that salmon farming has had in the media, as well as the fact that all the respondents live in small coastal communities.
83% – On the Pacific coast, oyster farming was the second most frequently identified farmed species (83%), followed by mussels (51%) and scallops (50%).
56% – On the Pacific coast, 56% expressed the concern that salmon farming was harmful/disruptive to wild stocks. This was followed by the use of chemicals/antibiotics (47%), waste accumulation on the ocean floor (44%) and sea lice generated by salmon farms (42%). On the Atlantic coast, the same four concerns were noted but not to the same degree and order. Chemical and antibiotics was the most frequent response (17%), followed by waste accumulation (15%), disruption to wild stocks (11%) and sea lice (5%). On the west coast, sea lice have long been a contentious issue, with many ENGOs blaming salmon farms for the outbreaks and also arguing that they subsequently kill wild salmon. Although the salmon farming industry has countered these claims with its own media releases, sea lice is one issue that resonates with people on the west coast.
31% – Foreign ownership of salmon farming companies was identified as a concern by 31% of the Pacific coast respondents. This may be related to the fact that the salmon farming industry in B.C. has experienced large-scale consolidation in recent years. On the Atlantic coast, the largest producer is Cooke Aquaculture, which is owned and operated out of New Brunswick. At the time of the survey, a smaller Canadian owned company Northern Harvest Seafarms was also operating in New Brunswick, but has signed a purchase agreement with Marine Harvest
36% – Overall, 36% of the respondents on the Pacific coast and 55% on the Atlantic coast identified employment and local economic benefits as factors contributing to a favourable impression of the industry.
77% – When it comes to source of information about aquaculture, on both coasts, ‘word of mouth’ was the most frequent response—77 and 69% for the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, respectively. Obviously, the majority of respondents gave great credence to the information provided by work colleagues, relatives, friends and neighbours. The second most frequent response on the Pacific coast was websites (56%), which is in sharp contrast with the much fewer 17% of Atlantic coast respondents who listed the Internet as an information source. Several other information sources were identified. However, relatively few people on both coasts made use of them. One difference that bears mentioning is that 10% of the Pacific coast respondents reported industry contacts as information sources, as opposed to 29% on the Atlantic coast.
60% – of the Pacific coast respondents rated DFO as a very or somewhat reliable information source, versus 69% on the Atlantic coast. The rating of DFO by west coast respondents is surprising as it has been at the centre of much controversy on the west coast for its management of both the capture fishery for salmon and salmon farming.
61% – ENGOs on both coasts have been active in drawing attention to their concerns regarding wild fish stocks and the environmental impacts they associate with the salmon farming industry. This has been done through public information campaigns, public demonstrations, occupation of salmon farms and, occasionally, by launching lawsuits against the industry and/or government regulatory bodies, all of which have received considerable media attention. There is a significant difference in the reliability assessment of ENGOs, which were rated as very or somewhat reliable by 47% of the respondents on the Atlantic coast and 61% on the Pacific coast.
83% – Overall, universities and research centres were identified as the most reliable sources of information on both coasts with 83% viewing them as reliable. That said, there was still a split in the ratings with 79% on the Atlantic versus 90% on the Pacific. The higher rating on the Pacific coast could be related, in part, to the fact that these respondents generally have higher education levels than those on the Atlantic coast, and may place greater trust in academic research institutions.
19% – Respondents on the Pacific coast showed considerable skepticism toward information about aquaculture obtained through the media, as only 19% of them viewed the media as very or somewhat reliable. This contrasts with the Atlantic coast where 44% viewed the media as reliable.
68% – Overall, 68% of the respondents felt that aquaculture was a valid user of the coastline, with a split of 71% Pacific coast and 67% Atlantic.
86% – Overall, 86% felt that aquaculture should be allowed to increase if done in a sustainable way, with a split of Pacific coast 86 and 77% Atlantic.
85% – Overall, 85% of the respondents felt that aquaculture creates good jobs in coastal communities, with a split of 88% Pacific coast versus 84% Atlantic.
80% – Overall, 80% felt that salmon farming was an important economic activity, with a split of 76% Pacific coast and 81% Atlantic.
84% – When asked whether aquaculture was necessary to meet the growing global demand for seafood, approximately 84% of the respondents either strongly agreed or tended to agree with this statement.
55% – Overall, 55% felt that aquaculture provides high quality seafood that is safe to eat, with the split being 60% on the Atlantic coast versus 46% on the Pacific.
60% – Overall, 60% felt that aquaculture relieves pressure on wild stocks, with the split being 67% on the Atlantic versus and 48% on the Pacific.
69% – When asked whether aquaculture was a sustainable way to produce food, 69 % strongly or tended to agree, with the split being 79% Atlantic coast versus 49% Pacific. – findings from the ‘Public attitudes towards marine aquaculture in Canada: insights from the Pacific and Atlantic coasts’ study.