Back to FISH Vol 27 4
PUBLISHED 1 Dec 2019

A new approach is needed to prepare Australia’s fishing and seafood sector for a complex and technologically interconnected future

By Matt Barwick and Gary Saliba

Illustration of a fish

Will past trends continue, or will the future of fishing and aquaculture be shaped by entirely different factors, with different outcomes?

Since the FRDC developed its first strategic plan in 1991, the world has become more complex. Technology has played a major part in this. The cost of computing has decreased massively and it has become more powerful. Further, the internet and interconnected smart systems have resulted in the widespread digitisation of information and a far more connected world. These technological changes have brought social and cultural flow-on effects that few could have predicted. Societal norms have changed and people can connect like never before.

The FRDC’s current Research, Development and Extension (RD&E) Plan 2015–2020 is drawing to a close and, as we prepare the next RD&E plan, it’s clear we need to think about new approaches to both anticipate the future needs of Australia’s fishing and aquaculture sector leading up to 2025 and address the ongoing ones.

The FRDC has previously taken a classic ‘priority setting’ approach to developing its RD&E plans. For the 2015–2020 plan, that meant consulting across the broad range of FRDC stakeholders, conducting research to generate a quantified picture of the sector, and from there identifying priorities and goals for the five-year period.

For the next plan, stakeholder consultation remains crucial to the planning process and stakeholders can still let the FRDC know their thoughts by visiting the FRDC's RD&E Plan 2020-2025. In addition, the FRDC is trying a few new approaches. One of these is working with futurist management consultancy Strategic Journeys to think about and map potential future scenarios, which are then explored in workshops.  

Exploring the future

Scenario planning enables stakeholders to consider a range of possible futures, both desirable and undesirable. It helps them explore different potential outcomes, challenges their unconscious biases and encourages them to examine and test their assumptions about the future.

The FRDC has engaged a broad cross-section of leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators from across Australia’s fishing and aquaculture community, including industry, to explore four possible scenarios of the future up until 2030. These scenarios will then help inform the 2020–2025 plan and alternative investment areas for RD&E.

The four scenarios can loosely be described as:

  • A future world characterised by confidence in information, knowledge and authority, in which these drivers work to create a unified and inclusive community.
  • A future world driven by fear, in which authorities and the purveyors of information polarise and divide different sectors within the community.
  • A future world in which key environmental impacts are known, measured and managed and decisions are informed by evidence.
  • A future world in which key environmental impacts are largely unknown, unmeasured and unmanaged and decision-making is driven by populism.

The dynamics within each scenario described above shape how the scenario plays out.

Graphic showing scenarios for planning the 2020-2025 FRDC plan  >


For example, by 2030 strong beliefs in the value of science might drive proactive adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. Alternatively, progress could be hampered by an inability to take evidence-based action.

Several of the scenarios describe deeply polarised politics which are fuelled by factors such as sensationalist media, or populism, in which celebrity is entwined with politics. Other potential futures feature more respectful, evidence-based political discourse.

The four scenarios also describe a number of possibilities for our aquatic systems – in some futures, they continue to be neglected and decline in health and productivity. Another scenario incorporates incentive programs to deliver economic advantage from rehabilitative efforts.

In one possible future, Australia’s fishing and aquaculture community is highly regarded for the benefits it delivers to the Australian public and our fisheries management is upheld as an example of world’s best practice. A less positive alternative sees Australia’s fishing and aquaculture community endure radical disruption, loss of social licence, heavy regulation, contraction and marginalisation.

By presenting potential futures, these scenarios can help to establish what the industry needs to focus on, to either reach desired outcomes or avoid detrimental ones. The process provides a way to ‘rehearse’ for what might happen and seeks to present futures that embody some of the complexity of the real world. For this reason, each scenario presents a range of interconnected outcomes that transcend a simpler, more linear cause-and-effect approach. The aim is that any lessons identified from such a rehearsal can then be incorporated into the plan.

Some of the early themes emerging from the scenarios include the need to identify opportunities to continue to grow production and profit, while leaving a lighter environmental and social footprint.

Participants in the planning process have also identified a need for:

  • greater capacity within the fishing and aquaculture community to influence decision-makers and leaders at all levels;
  • readily accessible, robust data to inform resource-sharing decisions as competition for aquatic space and resources increases;
  • effective investment in activities to care for the natural processes that underpin sustainable fisheries;
  • the collection of robust and accurate data in key areas to demonstrate transparency and enable traceability;
  • better relationships with customers, with other sectors and with each other; and
  • leadership to set good strategic direction, enable difficult conversations and to make hard decisions.

The four scenarios have been presented at workshops around the country, to gather further feedback and insights. Participants have been quick to observe that some of the dynamics explored in the scenarios are already beginning to play out, including economic crisis, climate change and population growth, and their associated effects.

Other changes already affecting the fishing community are a steady reduction in the number of fishers, consolidation of ownership and societal changes, including those related to food choices, such as the rise of flexitarian or vegetarian diets.

That these trends will continue appears to have been broadly accepted as a ‘given’, however, even amid the negatives, there are opportunities to be found and action that can be taken to respond and adapt, particularly if there is collective will and a coordinated plan to do so.

The results of these stakeholder workshops are being collated, analysed and considered by a number of stakeholder groups. 

The analysis will help to articulate a shared vision, planned outcomes and objectives, which the FRDC will use as the basis for developing the 2020–2025 plan. The final plan will be released in mid-2020.