Trust: it's an issue wherever an aquaculture company operates, and the relationship between producers and local communities is often key to whether a new venture is given the green light by authorities.
This is also true for the emerging seaweed sector, according to a new report by researchers from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS).
The Oban-based research institute, supported by funding from the WWF, has documented and analysed attitudes towards the UK's emerging seaweed farming sector, as well as "lessons to learn" from other aquaculture industries.
The aim is to enable new seaweed farming businesses to improve "social license", in other words, to gain public trust and backing for their activities.
Launched today by lead author Dr Suzi Billing at this year's Scottish Seaweed Industry Association annual meeting, held in Oban 14-16 November, the report offers a range of resources and data from a two-year study of attitudes towards seaweed farming from a range of communities and stakeholders throughout the UK.
“Seaweed farming is at an early stage of development in the UK and Europe but there is increasing interest from investors. It is seen as a great example of nature-based solutions and is appealing for its potential socio-economic effect, particularly in rural areas," Billing says.
“At this stage of development, it is important that seaweed farming learns lessons from more established forms of aquaculture," Billing continues.
"There must be a relationship between the operator and the community before a seaweed farm goes to the planning stage, so that people know what they’re getting. It is difficult to do that retrospectively, as the operator is seen as less trustworthy," Billing says.
Building trust is essential for getting ventures off the ground, Billing says, as well as developing longer-term relationships between operators and local communities.
“Considering social licence to operate (SLO) in the early planning makes the planning application stages easier for all stakeholders," she explains.
One of the main areas stressed in the report is the importance of understanding local social context when selecting a seaweed aquaculture site.
The study found that people were more likely to accept and support seaweed farming when positive relationships were already established, and when the industry as a whole was perceived as environmentally sustainable.
Although the industry is still in its infancy in the UK, seaweed farming is a long-established sector in Asia, accounting for more than 95% of global production, valued at US $18 billion.
The WWF, which funded the research, is actively supporting the development of seaweed cultivation in the UK through its Seaweed Solutions Project. Commenting on the report, WWF Project Manager Mollie Gupta reiterated the importance of social license as the sector develops.
“As we move forward in this exciting journey, social license is going to be pivotal in fostering trust, acceptance and ensuring that any benefits of seaweed aquaculture are genuinely felt and understood by local people," Gupta said.
“It is only with social license that we will be able to responsibly and sustainably scale up seaweed aquaculture, and in doing so achieve the potential benefits for nature, people and climate.”