Does aquaculture have a public image problem? That was the question we posed in our previous article in this series. We saw that some believe it is, but also that others do not. We saw that the data support the good practices and results of this industry, but we also saw that’s not enough, and more work needs to be done. We saw different positions, but a unanimous opinion: information is the best tool we have to fight against any adversary.
It may be discrediting campaigns, myths, or disinformation; it may be the media or social networks echoing the sector only when conflictive cases or problems arise, and not in the vast majority of good news; but whatever the problem faced by the sector, it is going to do so through information. There are many good things to tell, we just have to do it in the right way and maintain that effort over time.
How do clusters do it?
At the end of our previous article on this subject, Javier Ojeda, manager of the Spanish Aquaculture Business Association (APROMAR in its Spanish acronym) said that this outreach work, “is a long way to go, but it always ends up yielding results”. Erik Tveteraas, Investment Director at Nutreco, also believes so. “In terms of engaging with consumers engaging with public perception and public opinion is a challenge that aquaculture should take up to a large degree”, he told us. In this search for engagement with the consumer, the information campaigns developed by national associations such as the aforementioned APROMAR in Spain, the Norwegian Seafood Council in Norway, or Salmon Scotland in the United Kingdom play a fundamental role.
Starting with them, Salmon Scotland, Hamish Macdonell, Director of Strategic Engagement, sums it up by saying that their efforts are focused on “to make sure the facts are publicised”. “What we do is disseminate positive information but also educational material that explains what we do and why we do it without referencing any critics or false claims”, he told us in the previous article. They have commissioned a new nutritional study of Scottish salmon which findings were promoted through, among others, the British Dieticians Association; they have made campaigns in schools; or they have produced a series of animations (that can be seen on their website) that explain things like the occasional use of medicines and antibiotics or how predation from seals affects salmon farms; for example. What they never do is get involved with those who attack them, especially on social media, and, when necessary, take more serious action. “We largely ignore the campaigners, rather than play their game. Instead, we make sure positive, factual information is publicised. If activists try more direct, militant action, we call the police. We will not allow fish farm employees to be intimidated or have their place of work invaded by people who think it is ok to enter a biosecure environment, threatening the health and welfare of the fish by failing to follow tight, protective equipment rules that are enforced for very good reasons”.
The same path, that of information and transparency, is being followed at the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC). Asked how they are trying to solve this image or PR problem, they told WeAreAquaculture: “By being transparent and reminding consumers that aquaculture companies also adhere to farming regulations and food safety programs”. And Anders Nordøy Snellingen, Manager Global Operations, gave us some examples: “We’ve had some success with platforms like Salmon Facts, and also by addressing farming techniques in marketing materials. From focus groups, we see that once they see how Norwegian salmon is farmed (in fish pens in the sea) they struggle to connect it to their preconceived notion of what ‘farmed fish’ is”.
It is precisely that, to fight with preconceived ideas. This was explained in the previous article from the Spanish Aquaculture Business Association (APROMAR), which before launching its informative campaign ‘Acuicultura de España’ (‘Aquaculture of Spain’) made a previous study on the prejudices and brakes that Spanish society had about aquaculture and concluded that the biggest problem, more than a negative opinion, was the lack of information. That is why, as its manager, Javier Ojeda, told us, with this campaign they are deploying “constructive and positive messages, with perseverance, effort, patience and investment”, which are channeled both through the classic media and social networks, but also with actions in fishmongers, or with open days at production facilities. “For our message to reach society we must carry out our informative work in an attractive, permanent, and massive way”, Ojeda stated.
How do companies do it?
The ultimate goal of all this is that the final consumer will opt for fish and, specifically, farmed fish in their final purchasing decision. Something that, according to data from Salmon Scotland, seems to already be happening. “Salmon is the biggest selling seafood in the UK. Scottish salmon is also the UK’s biggest food export. This suggests that the consumer is delighted with our product and that we have no trouble getting the message that it is a nutritious, healthy protein across to the consumer”, said Hamish Macdonell. The fantastic year that 2022 is being for the Norwegian salmon would also support that opinion. And the fact is that the data show that, at the time of purchase, consumers tend to focus more on characteristics such as freshness, price, or geographical origin, than on the production system. And there, as Javier Ojeda, from APROMAR, explained, “in general, aquaculture fish are valued above average in terms of quality, food safety, affordability and availability throughout the year”.
However, we all agree on one thing, the consumer has the right to know the origin of their food, so companies, especially those that make an effort to ensure sustainability and animal welfare in their facilities, should and want to communicate this. “It is about communicating that a species raised at low cost in intensive or super intensive farms, with little regulation over farming or harvesting allowances, and little regulation over environmental impact, is not the same as that same species raised under stocking limitations, as part of a regulatory system that controls quotas, and with a technology that has been designed to protect the environment”, Lola Navarro, Communications Manager at Blue Future, told us. “If we can do our job to help people understand this and differentiate seafood by their origin or harvest and farming methods, we will not need to debunk any myths”. Their approach as a company is to develop and invest in sustainable companies, such as Purecod or American Aquafarms, focusing on the use of closed pen systems and, later, to communicate with the public as well as the industry and regulators, to demonstrate the benefits of these systems.
Øyvind Ihle, Marketing Director at Avramar, agrees. “We have an image problem with consumers still not trusting that aquaculture is sustainable”, he said, and added, “consumers don’t know it. Aquaculture it’s a way to curb overfishing”. In his opinion, the big opportunity for the entire seafood sector is to communicate to consumers. FAO has called upon aquaculture to deliver another 20 million tons of seafood, and Øyvind reminded us that “the reason why aquaculture needs to grow by 20 million tons is for sustainability”, and added, “in order to successfully transition to a resilient food system, we do need to get consumers onboard. Otherwise, it will not happen. Consumers simply will not eat that much more seafood if not for reasons that motivate them”.
For Øyvind Ihle, the solution for communicating comes first through innovation in the product itself that is offered to the consumer. “Now it’s harder to communicate on the whole round fish on ice, if you go to the fish counter you have less chances of communicating, once you put the fish into packaging you have more chances to communicate because you can do storytelling on the pack, and you can do branding as well easier on the pack”. So, as he sees it, the trend toward value-added products, where we will find a shift from less fresh fish and more fish in consumer-friendly solutions, will improve profit margins and, with them, the investment in communication. “The companies have to eat both, they have to innovate in order to communicate”, he claimed, “so, because the innovation creates margin, margin creates potential marketing budgets for consumer marketing. It’s all hang together”.
More marketing, more emotions
New ways of communicating and engaging with the consumer, Øyvind is not alone in his thinking. “We need more marketing talent, more research, more innovation and disruption in terms of content, ways to communicate and promoting our values as an industry among all stakeholders. And we must see marketing at a C-Level in any aquaculture company, believe & invest in it”, said Juan Ignacio Pinto, Head of Content Marketing and Advertising at Multi X. “As an industry we are doing the right things and believe me when I say it, because I grew up in this industry and I’ve being a witness of the evolution, we are really doing it and I’m proud to work in this. But, looking at the industry there are not so many players that have the knowledge to fit a message or a channel with their audience. And I think that is mainly because marketing is new around this industry, and we need more experienced marketers”, he stated and added that what needs to be done is “to define the right message for the right audience and being disruptive”.
His compatriot, Pablo Albistur, manager of Salmones Camanchaca, added a new element to the equation: the emotional factor. “Bad news flies and good news travels like a slow snail, it doesn’t permeate. So, I think we have to use the channels we already have in the industry to get the message across”, he said. But, as he also pointed out, “beyond that, which is super transactional, there are many groups that perhaps see the more emotional, more developmental, more integral part of the regions, of the territories, perhaps they don’t look so much at the numbers, but look more at these other things that are in attributes or in measures that are not easy to translate into money or in a unit that is easy to see”. How do you count that? Pablo wondered. “That is told through a much slower, much more intimate work between the parties, and that has to be made known, because, if we do not do that work of making it known, we will finally fall into the fact that the story creates reality. The story of some will create the reality for all, and it will be a biased reality, a false reality, so to speak, a non-rational reality”.
Then, the problem is, how do we link to that non-rational part? Further north, in Canada, Debra Hellbach, Manager at Vancouver Island University Centre for Seafood Innovation, reflects in similar terms. “I used to think that food was the most important thing in life, but now I know it’s communication. So, we really need to know how to communicate well, and I see evidence of good communication in the aquaculture industry”, she said, but as Erik Tveteraas, from Nutreco, told us in our previous article, sometimes it seems that this information is directed from the industry to the industry itself, “I’m seeing is that preaching to the converted”, Debra explained very graphically. Where we need to reach out is to consumers who, in her opinion and contrary to what many have expressed to us earlier in this article series, do not look at the data, at least not when it comes to taking a public stance on the matter.
“It really surprised me to learn that people don’t make decisions based on facts and figures, they don’t. That’s just not how we work, we make decisions based on our belief systems right now. I don’t know if I want to call them activists, but let’s say the anti-aquaculture, the anti-fish, the anti-animal protein people are winning. So, they are communicating to the general public and the general public is gobbling it up because they don’t have any alternatives really”, Debra stated.
Looking for new alternatives
The Manager at Vancouver Island University Centre for Seafood Innovation is quite pessimistic about the industry’s chances in the face of attacks such as last year’s release of the Netflix documentary ‘Seaspiracy’. Anyone in the aquaculture or seafood industry would tell us that the facts show that the documentary is partisan and offers biased information, and they would be right, but how many aquaculture outsiders have gotten that message? “There’s no way that anybody like you cannot counter that with facts and figures. You can’t say, ‘oh well, we employ 100 people, and we make $3 million to GDP’ or whatever, people don’t care about that. They want the drama”, Debra Hellbach told WeAreAquaculture.
She also said she doesn’t have the answers at her fingertips, but she gave us an example, a sitcom about a young girl that gets pregnant and has a baby awful experience. The United States government had done a campaign in doctors’ offices to prevent teen pregnancies that had little results, thanks to this tv show, teen pregnancies went down. “I believe in aquaculture and seafood we’ve got the teen pregnancy show the activists and the anti-people are presenting, and we’ve got the flyers at the doctor’s office saying that you should start, you should support our industry, it just it”. “Entertainment education is how people learn”, she said, and added, “I 100% believe in the power of entertainment education”.
Debra is not alone. The recently created ‘Fed by Blue’ organization, whose goal is to create awareness about how responsible fishing and cultivation practices have the potential to protect our waters, announced in its presentation a project to make a docuseries to show the world how consuming more seafood can help to restore oceans. ‘Eating Up the Oceans: How Do We Save Our Seas?’ is the name of the upcoming premium six-part docuseries. Behind, together with the three leaders of the organization, well-known names in the industry such as Jennifer Bushman, Blue Foods Advocate and Sustainable Seafood Expert; Jill Kauffman Johson, Marine Conservation Advocate; and Katherine Bryar, Food and Farming Advocate; are others no less well-known in the entertainment industry, such as the producer and writer David E. Kelley and the celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern. The series is expected in 2023 and we can’t wait to watch it and see how it works.
As we said at the beginning of the first article, we have seen a lot of work in the last ten years to improve the image of the industry in the eyes of the public authorities but, above all, in the eyes of end consumers. Much has been done, but much remains. The task is not easy but, judging by what the participants in this article have told us, the industry is armed with data and looking for new strategies. The last ten years have been intense; the next ten look fascinating.