Aquaculture has a poor image despite immense economic importance - Lack of knowledge nourishes prejudices

This article featured in Eurofish Magazine 6 2018.

EM6 18 AQ aquacultureDemand for fish and seafood products is growing throughout the world. Although catches from the fishing sector have stagnated since the 1990s per capita supply worldwide has increased. This is mainly due to global aquaculture which is growing year by year at impressive rates of between 6 and 8 per cent. In spite of this, fish farming is still criticised and its image is in many places far from good.

Without aquaculture it would not be possible to maintain today’s level of fish and seafood supply to mankind. Despite improved sustainability the quantity of fish landed cannot be increased at will, especially since the effects of regional overfishing, natural stock fluctuations, and climate change are difficult to calculate. With the targeted production of fish and seafood humanity has found a way out of this dilemma rendering aquaculture a logical step that has long been common and "normal" in other areas of food production such as fruit, vegetables and meat. We are all well aware of the fact that these products are not collected from the wild but are systematically grown or bred and produced by mankind according to his needs. Although agricultural production has a “head start” of hundreds of years, aquaculture is rapidly catching up, with its production capacity growing worldwide by 3 to 4 million tonnes a year. In the last decade alone it almost doubled. If this growth continues aquaculture could be on a level with traditional fishing by the beginning of the next decade.

There is a lot to be said for aquaculture. For example the fact that most of the production and spectacular growth rates are achieved in Asia and South America, thereby strengthening the economies of developing countries. Aquaculture has become an important source of income, providing welcome – and valuable – export goods. Low resource and feed requirements also clearly speak in favour of aquaculture. In the case of salmon only 1.3 kg of feed is needed for the fish to grow by one kilogram, whereas poultry need 2 kg and pigs 2.9 kg of feed. And measured in terms of land use per kilogram of protein produced, aquaculture performs better, too. Depending on farming intensity, 160 to 2,100 square metres of land area per kilogram of protein produced are required for cattle farming, whereas fish in aquaculture are presumed to require less than 25 square metres. And even when we look at nutrient emissions that contribute to the eutrophication of water bodies, aquaculture often scores better than people think, as the following table shows.



Emotions versus provable facts

In view of the enormous importance of aquaculture for the supply of high-quality fish and seafood it is astonishing that it has such a negative image among many consumers and has to face a constant barrage of criticism – especially in the western world. In this context “image” refers to the idea, i.e. the imaginary overall picture that the public makes of aquaculture. The message sent out about this type of fish production by many reports and discussions on aquaculture is rarely based on concrete, objectively provable facts but is rather a subjective perception with a strong emotional component. Quite a few opponents of aquaculture derive their criticism and rejection more from hearsay, mere claims and feelings than from well-founded knowledge. And behind this perception is often a romantic image of traditional fishing and fish farming. This is also reflected in an unjustified understanding and allocation of different product qualities.

Most consumers, for example, are convinced that wild fish tastes better than farmed fish. This is a bold statement, but one which is not always true in this absolute sense, as has been revealed by serious product tests. In tests and tastings of 25 smoked salmon fillets which the consumer organization Stiftung Warentest conducts every year in Germany shortly before Christmas, salmon from aquaculture scored significantly better than wild salmon in 2017. Most of the wild salmon in the test was found to be dry or "fishy". And indeed, overall consumer purchasing behaviour often reveals a considerable gap between criticism and demand, with farmed fish being bought at least as often and as readily as wild fish despite the reservations described above. In theory, there can be several reasons for this. Some shoppers may not know or be interested in where the fish they are buying comes from. Others may not even have a choice because the counter they shop at only offers products from aquaculture. But it would also be possible that consumers’ opinions are much more diverse than the public debate on aquaculture would suggest, i.e. that just a few spokesmen set the critical topics and course of public discussion and in this way channel opinions in a particular direction.


Criticism focuses on environmental damage

The public perception of aquaculture is very selective. While gourmets smack their lips appreciatively at the thought of oysters and mussels (all of which originate from aquaculture in our latitudes) they often turn up their noses at other products. They often have strong reservations which are almost always based on the same accusations: that fish farms destroy natural habitats. It is often claimed that mangroves, bays and even entire sections of the coast are destroyed or irreversibly damaged by aquaculture facilities, that waste water from fish farms flows via neighbouring rivers untreated into the sea, that fish excrement and food leftovers settle on the bottom, consuming the oxygen there and over-fertilising connected water bodies. Further accusations concern the use of chemicals and medicines, including antibiotics, which critics claim lead to the development of multi-resistant germs which can also be dangerous for humans. Or the increased risk of disease resulting from intensive aquaculture for the farm animals kept there which usually grow up under conditions that are not appropriate for their species. Other accusations focus on dangers from escapes, especially of invasive species. Genetically modified organisms and the use of growth hormones are constant topics for aquaculture critics, too, as is the assertion that aquaculture consumes more fish in feed than it ultimately produces, making its sustainability impossible.

What is striking is that criticism of the aquaculture industry is often directed at environmental problems. Claims that aquaculture reduces the variety of marine fauna and flora leaving behind "ecological cemeteries" are by no means new and are still heard frequently. But why do advocates of aquaculture find it so difficult to defend themselves convincingly against these accusations? One reason probably stems from the inequality of their "weapons". It is almost impossible to fight against feelings, prejudices and emotions with factual and technical arguments. Another is that this conflict is very “wearing” and many farm operators are simply tired of having to deal with the same accusations over and over again for years. These are repeated stubbornly like prayer mills under widespread ignorance of the progress and changes that have in the meantime been achieved in fish and shrimp farming. It would seem that the farm operators haven’t understood that the repetition of the same assertions, in as simple wording as possible, is one good reason why criticism of aquaculture has such a broad public resonance.


Criticism of aquaculture is often perceived as normal

Arguments – whether true or false – gain persuasive power the more often they are repeated. And if critics use simple, catchy and understandable phrases to present their ideas this makes it easy even for people who know nothing about aquaculture to agree, adopt and utter the same statements themselves, and ultimately to pass them on. In this way an alliance of like-minded people is created that draws its strength from the same easily understandable arguments. An "echo bubble", so to speak, in which no doubts arise about the prejudices that have become so dear to their believers, because the members of the alliance confirm and reinforce each other's judgements time and time again. The "self-conditioning" to support shared ideas makes them resistant to opposing facts. How well this method works can be seen in the fact that when they hear the word “shrimp” a lot of people immediately think of mangrove destruction or if the topic under discussion is “salmon” they soon associate the subject with the use of antibiotics.

The "alliance effect", the self-confirmation of similar opinions within an alliance, is reinforced by the fact that this "commitment" is virtually "free", i.e. it doesn’t cost its members anything. People who position themselves verbally "against" aquaculture don’t enter into any obligation. They can feel themselves to be nature lovers without having to change their lifestyle in any way or even fear serious consequences, for example for their job or their bank account. That makes it easy for everyone to adopt this supposedly "progressive attitude". Just how serious they really are about their rejection of aquaculture can be seen at the latest at the fish counter, where much less opposition is sometimes visible.

Already in 2009, the Commission of the European Union published a position paper (COM 2009/162) proposing, among other things, measures to improve the image of aquaculture. The Commission hopes that "common rules at EU level" will have a positive impact on the sustainable development of aquaculture. The aim was to raise awareness of aquaculture by consulting stakeholders. To this end, the Commission was to draw up guidelines and organise workshops with stakeholders and national authorities to contribute to a better knowledge and implementation of its main instruments of environmental policy. However, such proposals hardly seem likely to fundamentally improve the image of aquaculture in the public eye and in fact only confirm the helplessness of policy makers in this matter. The Commission paper ignores the fact that the debate on aquaculture is not fact-based. Or does anyone seriously believe that the opponents, with their deadlocked positions, are prepared to examine, let alone accept, the arguments of the opposing party?


Public opinion is strongly influenced by the media

In 2016 Tonje C. Osmundsen and Marit Schei Olsen conducted a study ("The imperishable controversy over aquaculture") to analyse the mechanisms, arguments and lines of action used in the public debate on aquaculture and the role of the news media – in this case the daily press – in the controversy. They examined 273 contributions to discussions and opinions from nine Norwegian newspapers, looking for similarities in arguments and rhetorical concepts. Their conclusion is unequivocal: public opinion is to a large extent shaped by the selection and presentation of news in the media. By paying more attention to or ignoring certain issues the media influence our perception of what are the important issues of the day. The topics that the media focus on will in the course of time be seen as important by the public, too.

The debate on aquaculture involves stakeholders of all kinds: scientists and environmentalists, journalists, lawyers, anglers, farmers, gourmet chefs, and many more besides. Some players who are particularly eager to compete for opinion leadership or, as the study calls it, "discursive hegemony" take on the role of "claim makers" or "policy entrepreneurs". In the debate about salmon farming in Norway two opposing groups ("discourse alliances") gather around these claim makers, seeking public support for their versions of reality. The analysis of newspaper articles reveals which linguistic images and rhetorical means both groups use. The aquaculture-critical alliance depicts salmon farming as a billion dollar industry that is allowed to destroy Norway’s fjords with the help of corrupt politicians. Newspaper articles paint a picture of a dirty industry that damages pristine waters and robs wild animals of their livelihoods. Terms such as "underwater prisons", "sewage", "poison" and "stinking" or phrases such as "the ecosystem is collapsing" are used to arouse readers’ emotions and remind them of the need to preserve nature. The topic as a whole is often associated with accusations that politicians are "bought by industry" and with suggestions of a conspiracy between fish farmers and the government.

The alliance of aquaculture advocates, on the other hand, reminds people that salmon farming makes an important contribution towards combating hunger in the world and that every human activity leaves a footprint, also confirming that problems – here usually called “challenges” – are taken very seriously. The rhetorical concepts presented create a positive image of progress and growth through words such as "growth potential", "innovation" and "sustainability". And there are some impressive figures to show how many plates of Norwegian salmon are enjoyed every day throughout the world. Viewed overall, the ecological footprint of salmon farming was quite acceptable, quite tolerable, already due to the strict regulations and high environmental standards, adherence to which is monitored by government authorities and public administration.


Differentiated and factual discussion is necessary

Both parties are making a recognizable effort to slim down the complex topic via rhetorical means and simple linguistic images in order to convey their message in an understandable way to the broadest possible public and thereby gain social acceptance… A simple concept that ultimately allows every citizen – regardless of their educational background and specialist knowledge – to participate in the debate. Although this might look like grass-roots democracy it doesn’t really get us anywhere because the positions in the urgently needed public debate on the possibilities and limits of aquaculture are not only deadlocked and at an impasse but have also taken on an almost ritual character. Both sides use the same arguments time and time again to assert their positions. The study by Osmundsen and Olsen also states that the discussions about aquaculture have hardly developed further over the course of time. For years, they have been conducted in the same way with the same arguments and the same rhetorical concepts. Some rumours have almost assumed the "quality of facts" due to their constant repetition, but in the end this will not get us any further in the matter.

What we need, what is desirable, and what might be helpful, is a more differentiated debate about the advantages and disadvantages of aquaculture. But the debate has to be based on a genuinely sound factual analysis. That is after all the prerequisite for any change, and would point the way to go. The aim and purpose of a debate is the search for the right or at least a better way. Exchanging arguments only makes sense if both sides are prepared to listen and basically willing to make concessions and reach an agreement. At present there is little sign of this however. Neither the form nor the content of the public debate on aquaculture meets these requirements; so we are only marking time.

There are quite a lot of other controversial issues about which it would be worth arguing. What, for example, are objective criteria for good farming practice and how can we reconcile animal welfare and protection with the economic viability of farms, or how can environmental damage be avoided most effectively? If something is really to move, each of the two parties will have to take a first step.