Let’s Talk Fish

Fishing Trawlers, Port Lincoln South Australia

Fishing Trawlers, Port Lincoln South Australia

A project designed to help Australia’s wild-catch commercial fishing industry raise its “social acceptability” has found that while people support  Australia having a wild catch fishing industry, they believe that the industry can have a negative impact on marine habitat, animals and birdlife, recreational fishing and the availability of fish species for seafood in the future.
The two-year project, Let’s Talk Fish: Assisting industry to understand and inform conversation about the sustainability of wild catch fishing, is now in its final stages with the draft final report sent to the funding body, the Fisheries Research & Development Corporation.  Researchers involved in the $195,000 project are Professor Allan Curtis, Institute adjunct Dr Nicki Mazur and Andy Bodsworth from Cobalt Marine Resource Management.

Dr Mazur said the project had three aims designed to provide the industry with information that will help it to improve its social acceptability. They were:

  • To better understand the current level of social acceptability of the industry
  • To identify the social/psychological factors that form the basis of social acceptability of a primary industry like fisheries
  • To what extent does that social acceptability inform government decisions such as under what conditions is the industry going to get access to resources i.e. fish stocks

“The assumptions were that (a) there have been some problems with the industry’s social acceptability and that those problems were based on people’s judgements that the industry has been less sustainable than it should be, and (b) that those judgements somehow inform the decision-making process about the access the fishing industry is going to get its share of public assets like fish stocks,” says Dr Mazur.

Fishing boats at St Helen's, Tasmania

Fishing boats at St Helen’s, Tasmania

The researchers gathered the information they needed for the project from a survey sent last March to people living in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane; and from four different case studies of resource access decisions. Two of these decisions were the establishment of the South West Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network and the amendment of the listing of shortfin mako sharks as a migratory species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which meant recreational fishers can now catch the shark.

From the survey, the researchers found while there was a good level of social acceptability for the industry – that the wider public felt Australia needed a wild catch fishing industry – the acceptance was conditional on the belief that the industry was being effectively regulated and acting in an environmentally sustainable manner. Survey respondents consistently favoured prioritising environmental protection over fishing industry livelihoods, and preferred Australian seafood over imported seafood.

Four case studies

From the four case studies, which involved interviewing a range of stakeholders from industry, interest groups and decision-makers, they found there were a number of factors that influenced the decision making processes, not just social acceptability.

Dr Mazur said in all four of the case studies decisions were shaped by prior international and national policy agreements; the use of particular scientific frameworks (as well as debates about the veracity of that kind of knowledge); the separation of fisheries management and marine conservation  functions in government agencies; the values and beliefs of influential actors across the fishing industry, interest groups and government decision makers; formal and informal consultation processes; and concurrent and related policy issues (e.g. the ‘super-trawler’ controversy.)
“As far as the influence of social acceptability goes, it’s really about different degrees of approval from identified parts of society,” says Dr Mazur. “When we talk about it casually we tend to think of it as this single largely positive or negative view of the homogenous whole which it isn’t. But what does tend to happen is that interest groups, the industry, the decision-makers…they all do try to understand how and to what extent public opinion is aligned with their respective interests.

“In the case of the conservation and recreational fishing groups, they were fairly effective in encouraging many members of the interested public to join them and letting the decision-makers know about what they saw as their mutual concerns. In doing that the interest groups suggested that all these communications received by decision-makers were sufficiently representative of Australian society. It was then up to the decision-makers, the agency staff to make some kind of judgement about how significant those representations were based not just on their  merit but also on the quantity. Anything below some arbitrary amount can be considered less significant and may not have informed the decisions as much. In this way, influential people’s assessment of both the content and significance of that body of opinion can do more to shape decisions than the actual opinions themselves.”

Based on their findings, and the response from presentations and workshops at the national industry   Seafood Directions 2013 conference, held in October in Port Lincoln last year, and the Women’s Industry Network for Seafood Community’s annual general meeting, the researchers have formulated what they call “engagement strategy foundations” for the industry. “We felt it is important for the industry to look at how it can improve its social acceptability by engaging in building trust,” says Dr Mazur. “To do that it needs an engagement strategy which includes some of the principles of good engagement and then eight foundations to help build a more specific engagement strategy.”

These are:

  • Move beyond communication to engagement
  • Formulate positive vision(s) for the future
  • Prioritise building relationships with stakeholders over expensive public information wars
  • Selectively communicate with the public
  • Improve understanding and manage expectations of the policy process
  • Engage internally to help people move on.
  • Continue to build capacity for engagement and seek professional assistance
  • Identify roles and responsibilities for industry engagement

Referring to the sixth guideline, Dr Mazur says at the Seafood Directions conference there was a lot of anger, grief and despair among some members of the fishing industry from some of the negative impacts from fisheries regulation reforms and the public controversies over fishing industry access to wild fish stocks, including resource sharing decisions.

“These things have pretty serious implications for people, individuals as well as the whole sector,” says Dr Mazur. “If these states of mind are being experienced across the industry, they are very likely to constrain how well the individuals, industry association and the industry itself can reach their goals.  You can’t move on unless you sincerely acknowledge people’s frustrations and find ways to support them to help them move on.”

To summarise Dr Mazur said they had provided a solid evidence base for what people suspected was true as well as some new areas for the industry to think about in terms of social acceptability like how important trust is and the recommendations around the engagement strategy.

About ilwscsu
The Institute for Land, Water and Society is one of four Centres of Research Excellence within Charles Sturt University, Australia. Its principal focus is on integrated research which contributes to improved social and environmental sustainability in rural and regional areas.

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