Aquaculture public image (I): the potential problem

Aerial drone ultra wide photo of large fish farming unit of sea bass and sea bream in growing cages in calm waters of Mediterranean destination
Aerial drone ultra wide photo of large fish farming unit of sea bass and sea bream in growing cages in calm waters of Mediterranean destination

Does aquaculture have a public image problem? When you talk to industry professionals, this is an almost recurring theme that often creeps into the conversation almost without meaning to. And this happens despite the fact that practically all companies have been fighting against this image for a few years now. Everyone who is related to the aquaculture industry has seen, read, or heard the claim that it is the most sustainable way of feeding people with nutritious healthy protein. It is repeated almost like a mantra, so much so that for outsiders it might sound like an advertising slogan, although it is not. Behind this claim, there is a lot of demonstrable data and also many years of work in favor of sustainability, not only at the environmental level but also in animal welfare and social development.

Why then are we unable to get rid of this image problem? We have talked to different professionals in the sector and there are different opinions, there are even those who believe that there is no problem, or that it is not as big as it is portrayed if we look at the sales and demand figures for aquaculture production. Most agree that the data support us and we should use them to our advantage, although everyone has their own opinion on how to do it. However, they all agree on one thing: we must continue to work against prejudice and ignorance.

Reaching beyond the aquaculture industry

"As a sector though, we obviously have a little bit of an image problem", Shane A. Hunter, CEO at AquaBioTech Group, told us a few months ago in his Talent View, "we talked about that, about us needing to engage more with society, with communities, to gain people's understanding", he continued. He is not the only one, recently Erik Tveteraas, Investment Director at Nutreco, told us something similar, "aquaculture, in general, has not been good enough with communications and thinking in particular of public communications", although he qualified that perhaps the problem is that we think too much of ourselves. "We've done the industry a disservice by thinking that because we in the industry know this, then the public at large will know this. But that's just not the case in many instances".

Are we navel-gazing too much? It is possible and, in a way, it would be normal. The effort made by companies in recent times, especially in the last decade, has been so great, so much work has been done in terms of technical, organizational, and communication improvements that maybe is not accurate to say that they are not communicating well. Perhaps the point is to nuance and contextualize it, as does Tavish Scott, CEO of Salmon Scotland: "I don't think we've done this well enough in the past, and I don't think we've told our story about how quickly the sector has moved and the changes that have happened in that sustainable direction over the last 10 years". It is not that it has not been done or that it has been done badly, it is just that we have not yet found the exact point to make that message reach all its addressees, which, as Tavish himself reminds us, are mainly two, the public bodies and the consumers.

In the end, it will always be the consumers who will have the last word at the seafood counter. However, before they get there, governments will have created rules that will affect what they find in their fishmonger, politicians will have launched messages, anti-aquaculture activists will have done the same, and the media and social networks will have echoed all of this. All this information that has reached the consumer will make his decision. And the information itself is not bad, the problem is how inaccurate or how interested that information is, and here, of course, the aquaculture sector also has an interest. The real problem comes when this inaccurate information becomes generalized, and the story creates reality. Pablo Albistur, Farming Manager of Salmones Camanchaca, in Chile, explains: "There has been a lot of inaccurate or incomplete information, which goes around different networks, with interests. Of course, I have my interest, I work in an aquaculture company, therefore, I could also have the same bias. But there has been a lot of inaccurate information, a lot of 'cherry-picking' of certain points, but I think that what has done us wrong at a global level in the public opinion is precisely to generalize things".

Of course, despite the collective effort, there will still be those who do not do things right, but most of them do, and they are making the effort to communicate it both at the corporate level, company by company, and through clusters, sectorial or national, which, as Lola Navarro, Communications Manager at Blue Future, explains, are doing an important job in this regard: "These clusters do a very good job in approaching the consumer, answering questions, and differentiating their product from the rest", she said and added, "companies are also making individual efforts to differentiate their product and to promote their harvest or farming methods, both to the seafood buyer and to the consumer". In her opinion, all this work is paying off: "With all this, the message that there are different types of seafood is getting out there, and with common effort we will continue to see an increase in demand of products that have been raised sustainably and humanely".

Aquaculture facility next to de sea in Spain. Photo: Acuicultura de España, APROMAR.

Not everyone believes there is a problem

As we said at the beginning, not everyone in the aquaculture sector believes that there is an image problem. This opinion is especially shared by those working in the national or sectoral clusters we have just mentioned. "I don't believe we have a specific image/PR problem in the seafood/aquaculture sector. Like any protein-producing sector, we face a small number of obsessive, one-issue opponents who will spread misinformation to cause us problems". Hamish Macdonell, Director of Strategic Engagement at Salmon Scotland, is this categorical. A similar view is shared by the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC), where its Manager Global Operations, Anders Nordøy Snellingen, says: "We tend to believe it to be the case following negative media stories, which do occur from time to time. However, our consumer surveys often paint a different picture about Norwegian aquaculture/salmon. As such we don't believe the industry as having a PR-problem.. especially relative to other food production forms".

Someone may be thinking that their job is to tackle that image problem and that they are not going to shoot themselves in the foot, but the truth is that, when they argue it, they are basing it on data. Anders Nordøy Snellingen talked about surveys, and so does Hamish Macdonell. "We know from polling we have done that most people either support salmon farming or have no view and that the number of opponents we have is very small", he said, and continued, "they do use social media to project an impression that they are more numerous than they really are but, as long as continue to disseminate positive content and clear, evidence-backed messaging, I believe most consumers will continue to back us by buying our product". Someone may think too that Norway or Scotland are very large markets for aquaculture and more specifically for salmon and that their specific weight in the local economy may make them enjoy a lot of public support in these surveys, while there are other markets where they have much less support or, to explain it better, there is a greater lack of knowledge. This could be, for example, the case of Spain, where despite being the European Union country with the highest aquaculture production, the sector is still quite unknown.

"In the saturated environment of information and news in which we live in the 21st century, it is difficult to capture the attention of the public", confessed Javier Ojeda, manager of the Spanish Aquaculture Business Association (APROMAR in its Spanish acronym).  The organization has been working for years on informative campaigns to publicize the sector. The latest, called 'Acuicultura de España' ('Aquaculture of Spain'), is based on a previous study on the prejudices and brakes that Spanish society had about aquaculture, "and that study clearly showed that, rather than negative perceptions about aquaculture, what existed was a lack of information about what aquaculture is and how it is carried out", Ojeda explained.

In the end, his opinion is very similar to the one offered by the Norwegian Seafood Council or Salmon Scotland. According to APROMAR, there are more than 5,000 aquaculture facilities in operation in Spain that normally do not make the news, although "there are specific cases in which the start-up of a new aquaculture company raises misgivings". These are very few situations, he remarks, "but it happens that these are the examples that make the media". The solution? The same as everyone else: information and commitment. "These exceptional reactions are not exceptions either in the hypercritical environment that dominates today's social networks and media. And they are cases that end up being solved with information and social commitments", Javier Ojeda stated.

Sharing knowledge or dispelling myths?

Surveys, data, facts, figures… in short, information. That is the common weapon that everyone, in every country, wields against anti-aquaculture groups. But, in our talk with Shane A. Hunter of AquaBioTech, he stated the following: "It's about sharing knowledge, but also dispelling myths". What is the opinion of those who handle this data?

Again, Hamish Macdonell, Director of Strategic Engagement at Salmon Scotland, is categorical. "We don't go out to dispel myths directly because, to do that, we would have to engage one-to-one with the critics who spread them". And he explained: "Doing that plays straight into their narrative and would bring us down to the gutter with them. 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".

For the Norwegian Seafood Council, the information is also key, although they qualify their perspective somewhat. "For us, it's a mix", said Anders Nordøy Snellingen, Manager Global Operations at NSC, "consumer demand for information seems to be growing, and there is still a huge knowledge gap to fill. Information sharing about how salmon is farmed is, therefore, a must. Finding the right angles and communication formats is the challenging part". But he specified: "As for myth-busting, there is some of that as well. For example, a recurring topic is excessive use of antibiotics, which has been close to eradicated within Norwegian aquaculture. This seems to be 'hanging on' in many European markets".

Are there myths? There are, of course, but the Spanish point of view is similar to the Norwegian and Scottish. "The basic thing is to provide rigorous information and share that knowledge widely", said Javier Ojeda, from APROMAR, "myths and fake news circulate everywhere in social networks, but they are weakened with data based on scientific rigor. And this is what we do. It's a long way to go, but it always ends up yielding results".

We began by asking ourselves a question: does aquaculture have a public image problem? And although, as at the beginning, there are still different opinions on the matter, what is certain is that there is a solution, and the sector is working on it. There is a message to get across and everyone is committed to getting it to the consumer. Now the question is, how are they going to do it? Keep on tunned to find it out. There is a lot to talk about, and we'll do it in the second part of this article.

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