Community trust in fisheries and aquaculture is high, but there are opportunities to further improve that trust by being more responsive and proactively engaging on issues of community concern.
Over 80% of Australians believe fisheries play an important role in our society and the percentage is increasing steadily. This is one of the findings of the recently completed Community Trust in Rural Industries (CTRI) national research program survey, which ran for three years and surveyed 19,194 participants.
The program began in 2019 and involved 11 rural research and development corporations, including FRDC.
The first two years of the CTRI surveys found that environmental responsibility and industry responsiveness to community concerns about environmental issues were the main drivers of trust in rural industries.
The third year has narrowed in on the subtleties of environmental responsibility in rural industries.
Survey participants in 2021 were asked to consider trade-offs in the production of fish at a commercial level in the context of environmental and ethical questions.
For example, when asked if we should eat less fish rather than farm them more intensively in any form, only 29% agreed with this statement.
Lead researcher Dr Kieren Moffat from Voconiq says this suggests that generally Australians are interested in finding an environmentally responsible and ethical way of farming fish rather than abolishing the industry altogether.
And when asked if they would be okay with farming fish like salmon intensively, as long as it happened in a closed system or on land, rather than in open ocean or inshore coastal areas, 41.6% of people agreed, 39% of people remained neutral while only 20% of people disagreed.
Kieren says that while there is a large proportion of people who support this trade-off, the significant percentage of ‘neutral’ responses indicates there are many who feel too uninformed on these issues to form a strong opinion either way. This signals an opportunity for the aquaculture and fisheries sectors to engage with those people.
“Getting in and helping people to understand the issues, the complexities and the trade-offs that happen in those spaces is a really good way to help them make more definitive decisions on what they feel on those topics,” Kieren says.
“Particularly with the environment being the strongest driver of trust in rural industries, having those conversations, even if they're difficult, is really important for mitigating the risk of social pressure or rejection.”
While the health of the environment is a large concern of the public, community members also recognise that fishers and farmers share this concern. In the survey, 85% of respondents agreed that farmers’ and fishers’ businesses suffer if they do not look after their local environment.
However, when asked specifically if fishers have a strong financial incentive to avoid catching protected species that they cannot sell, only 52% of the public agreed, with 36% being neutral and 12% disagreeing.
Kieren suggests this further demonstrates the importance of the fisheries sector communicating and engaging with the community about how its efforts to look after the local environment align with community expectations.
“I think for fisheries, because it is so strongly and clearly regulated, but so different in each jurisdiction, there is some real work to do there about demonstrating respect for the umpire and the importance of the regulatory frameworks and why they're important,” he says.
Overall, trust in commercial fisheries has hovered between 3.2 and 3.1 out of 5 over the course of the three-year survey. Trust in aquaculture dipped from 3.4 to 3.2. While this indicates quite a strong level of trust, fisheries and aquaculture sit a little bit below the average level of trust in rural industries overall (3.4).
Younger age groups (18 to 24 year old) also had the strongest level of agreement (3.3) with the statement: we should eat less fish rather than farm them intensively in any farm.
Kieren says this is most likely more about understanding how fishery and aquaculture industries operate, rather than concerns with industry practices.
“This has really been a theme of the work, highlighting the challenges and the areas that the rural industries need to work on. But also to illustrate the strengths and the fact that fisheries have a strong position with the Australian community and have a good platform from which to build a relationship with their community.”
Following the three years of surveys, the next step will be to showcase the results and begin working with rural industries to build a guidelines on how to respond to trust challenges and incidences that may jeopardise relationships with the community.
“The community sees that environmental responsibility is a shared responsibility across rural industries. This will feed into the delivery of a toolkit for rural industries to show operators at the grassroots level how to work on building trust and responding to challenging issues,” Kieran says.