Social and economic evaluation of NSW coastal aquaculture

Project Number:



University of Technology Sydney (UTS)

Principal Investigator:

Kate Barclay

Project Status:


FRDC Expenditure:





The NSW coastal aquaculture industry needs sound information about its economic and social contributions to coastal communities for its continued access to coastal resources to address prevalent negative perceptions. Competing coastal uses such as marine protected areas for conservation purposes and havens for recreational fishing may compromise the viability of aquaculture. For example, in recent submissions to government about commercial shellfish aquaculture leases in Jervis Bay, one submission claimed: “The contribution to the local and regional economy is estimated to be no more than $2 million. Is it worth risking a $700 million tourism industry for this small return?” Responses to this submission relied on evidence from locations outside NSW because currently there is no information available about contributions aquaculture makes to NSW regional communities beyond the value of farm gate sales. It is possible that aquaculture may enhance tourism, as it does in other regions in Australia and overseas, rather than detract from it, but without evidence it is difficult to make the case. The NSW coastal aquaculture industry and the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) staff working on aquaculture have identified a need for a social and economic evaluation of the contributions the industry makes to regional communities. The new Marine Estate resource allocation process is based on assessments of social, economic and ecological values, threats and risks, highlighting absolute necessity of social and economic evaluations. Current trends for social responsibility reporting or certification for marketing also require social assessments. Finally, part of the need here is to improve the industry’s social license to operate. This project will provide baseline information that industry can then use to inform their community engagement strategies. DPI Aquaculture Manager Ian Lyall discovered that this kind of evaluation was planned for FRDC 2014/301 (on wild catch fisheries) and contacted the PI Kate Barclay to see if the same could be done for aquaculture, resulting in this proposal. DPI would benefit from this information for strategic planning for future development of coastal aquaculture.


1. Evaluate the economic contribution of aquaculture production in relevant regions on the NSW coast, including the regional economic impacts such as multiplier effects and employment and contributions to related sectors within regions, building on previous similar studies.

2. Evaluate the social contributions of aquaculture for the same regions, including the participation of families in community organizations, heritage values of seafood production for regions, and the social aspects of economic contributions, building on previous studies.

3. Establish a methodology to be used for ongoing social and economic evaluations as part of government reporting and industry engagement, building on recent and ongoing work in this field.

4. Write a report integrating the social and economic evaluations for each region identifying the role of aquaculture in those communities, and highlighting threats to sustainability and viability, in a form suitable for engaging with local and state government agencies.

Final Report 2015-302-DLD - Social and Economic Evaluation of NSW Coastal Aquaculture

Final Report
Date Published:February 2017

Authors: Barclay, K., McIlgorm, A., Mazur, N., Voyer, M., Schnierer, S., Payne, A.M.

Keywords: Aquaculture, NSW, New South Wales, community wellbeing, social contributions, economic contributions, coastal zone management

Executive Summary


The aquaculture industry contributes to the vitality and viability of rural and regional areas in coastal NSW. This research addresses two key information gaps about the role of aquaculture in coastal communities. First, the aquaculture industry in NSW feels that their role has not been accurately valued, and this has made them vulnerable in resource allocation decisions. Second, although NSW Government agencies are under legislative obligations to adhere to the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development, policy prioritises biodiversity conservation and economic sustainability and lacks the processes and tools to include social aspects, such as community wellbeing. These gaps in valuation are of concern not just in NSW, but also around Australia.

In 2015-2016 a collaboration of social scientists and economists from the University of Technology Sydney, the University of Wollongong, ENVision Environmental Consulting and Western Research Institute has addressed these information gaps. Understanding the role of aquaculture in the social and economic lives of NSW coastal communities is vital for ‘getting it right’ in resource management and allocation. What do communities lose if oyster and prawn aquaculture declines, or if fish farming and other new forms of aquaculture fail to thrive? Using social and economic questionnaires of NSW aquaculturists, the general public, government organisations and businesses related to the industry, coupled with in-depth interviews of 34 people connected to the industry, we uncovered the significant roles that aquaculture plays in helping to sustain the vitality and viability of NSW coastal areas.

This research represents the second known example in Australia of integrating qualitative and quantitative social science and economic methods to develop an integrated and holistic picture of the aquaculture industry’s contributions to community wellbeing. The first was a larger sister project Social and Economic Evaluation of NSW Coastal Professional Wild-Catch Fisheries, which addressed similar research questions and conducted by a core group of researchers across both projects (FRDC project 2014/301) (Voyer et al., 2016). The current aquaculture project used the same methodology as the Wild-Catch project, and several of the key findings are similar. 


Results/key findings


The following results are grouped under each of the seven identified ‘dimensions of community wellbeing’.

A resilient local economy


  • Aquaculture is an integral part of the economy of coastal regional NSW. Across NSW, aquaculture and the secondary sector have a likely output in 2013–14 of $226m, $134m in added value, and $69.3m in household income, and the sectors combined involve a total of 1,758 full-time jobs.
  • The aquaculture industry has complementary and interdependent social and economic relationships with a number of other industries that are important to local economies in regional areas. In particular, regional tourism is supported by, and in turn supports, aquaculture.
    • Regional tourism: 89% of NSW residents expect to eat local seafood when they visit the coast, 76% feel that eating local seafood is an important part of their coastal holiday experience, and 63% indicated they would be interested in visiting an aquaculture facility while on holidays.
    • These findings indicate that negative perceptions put forward in submissions to development applications and in the media may be a minority view, and that the majority of NSW coastal holiday makers are not discouraged by the presence of aquaculture, but find it adds to their experience in terms of providing fresh local seafood and a point of interest for visiting.
  • Aquaculture plays an important role in local employment, particularly through offering entry-level jobs. Such jobs are proportionally more important in rural economies than in cities, and for disadvantaged social groups, including Indigenous people.
  • Eighty-four percent of NSW coastal residents believe the aquaculture industry provides important employment opportunities in NSW towns. These results varied slightly between regions but remained consistently high across the state.

Community health

  • Locally sourced seafood is an important source of food and nutrition within local communities, especially in regional areas where preferences and purchasing patterns indicate moderate-to-strong consumer demand for these products. Further growth of this market is inhibited by a lack of awareness amoung the public as to whether the products they are buying are locally produced. While supermarkets are the primary market for seafood sales in most areas, our results indicate a strong reliance on local co-operatives for those seeking out local seafood. It is likely that consumers are less aware of the provenance of the seafood they are buying when they purchase from other popular outlets such as supermarkets, fish shops, restaurants and takeaway food shops.
  • The NSW general public believes the NSW seafood industry is important for local food security – 94% agree it is important we produce our own seafood in NSW. They also want to know where their seafood comes from – 37% were ‘extremely interested’ and 35% ‘very interested’.
  • Ninety-six percent of NSW coastal residents indicated that the desire to support their local community was a major motivation in purchasing local product.
  • Aquaculture has the potential to contribute to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities in a range of ways, including the provision of culturally and materially important food, involvement in the use and management of natural resources and providing employment opportunities (see Recommendation 8). 

Education and knowledge generation

  • The aquaculture industry in NSW provides a range of contributions to this dimension of wellbeing, including research, formal training and on-the-job learning about how to do aquaculture well, and also local environmental knowledge, especially about water quality and how to maintain it.
  • These knowledge-generation activities involve not only owners and staff in aquaculture enterprises, researchers and government aquaculture managers, but also members of the community and school students who visit aquaculture facilities or attend talks given by aquaculturists.
  • Awareness of the education and knowledge-generation contributions of the aquaculture industry is low among the general public.
  • A lack of accessible appropriate training and education for Indigenous people is one of the key barriers to their greater participation in the aquaculture industry (see Recommendation 8).

A healthy environment

  • Aquaculturists contribute to environmental health through sustainable practices. Aquaculturists undertake extensive environmental stewardship activities and the industry constitutes a stakeholder group strongly motivated to ensure local water quality is maintained and even improved as the animals they are cultivating depend on it. There are interconnections with the tourism sector in this area, which shares a commercial interest in a clean environment because of tourist preferences.
  • The aquaculture industry’s social licence to operate depends largely on public perceptions that it is conducted in an environmentally sustainable manner. While the industry undertakes many activities relating to environmental protection, community confidence in the industry’s environmental credentials could be improved by raising public awareness of independent, credible, easily accessible information about environmental regulation and performance.
  • Seventy-one percent of the NSW public in coastal communities believe that the aquaculture industry can be trusted to act in a sustainable manner. Seventy percent support the continuation of the industry. 

Integrated, diverse and vibrant communities

  • The aquaculture industry contributes to social inclusion through provision of entry-level jobs in regional areas. Although not all people who take up this work are socially disadvantaged, a significant number of aquaculturists specifically recruit long-term unemployed people, helping them develop track records of employment and become ongoing members of the workforce.
  • Oyster farming in particular has long provided employment opportunities for Aboriginal people in coastal areas, particularly the Port Stephens–Great Lakes area. Aquaculture has the potential to provide many more opportunities for Aboriginal people, including in business ownership, but previous efforts to support this have not resulted in as many Aboriginal-owned and run businesses as was hoped. Lessons from past efforts indicate that interventions must be long term, business based, multi-faceted, and based on thorough consultation onwards from the planning stage.
  • Aquaculture contributions to an integrated community are influenced by the relationships the industry has internally, with the wider community and with decision makers (referred to as bonding, bridging and linking forms of social capital). The aquaculture industry plays an active role in community life and in supporting local communities through committee work, sponsorships, donations and active participation in community events.

Cultural heritage and community identity

  • NSW has a long history of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal aquaculture that has become part of the culture of coastal communities. Oyster farming in NSW is the longest-running commercial aquaculture type in Australia. Some of the prawn and fish farms that started since the 1980s are already multigenerational, and so are becoming part of the heritage of coastal towns.
  • Aquaculture businesses have become integral to community identity in some locations on the coast through being an integral part of the local economy, and also through place-branding work done by industries and regional tourism promotion agencies to build awareness of local producers as part of food communities.

Leisure and recreation

  • The NSW aquaculture industry contributes special-occasion food for convivial social meals at home and at restaurants for celebrations, and importantly also while on holiday. Fresh local seafood is a central part of the enjoyment of coastal holidays for many coastal holiday makers of various ethnic backgrounds.
  • Shellfish leases provide a sheltered fish-attracting habitat that is valued by recreational fishers and also interesting for other boaters, kayakers and picnickers. At least one land-based farm also offers tours and meals that are popular, including with international tourists from various Asian countries.

Implications for relevant stakeholders

  • The project results have a range of implications relevant to industry, local communities, managers or policy makers and other sectoral interest groups, including tourism bodies and recreational fishing groups. The report highlights areas where networks could enhance industry contributions to wellbeing, especially by building on the tourism potential of the seafood industry. This is not to say all aquaculturists will want to be directly involved in tourism, but connections between the sectors may nevertheless be strengthened. The report also suggests that responses to resource allocation disputes in development application processes that seek to exclude aquaculture from coastal areas in favour of tourism or high-end waterfront residential uses may be counterproductive, given the interdependence and complementary elements of different sectors in regional economies. Finally, the research suggests approaches that the NSW Government could take to further support aquaculture development, particularly through ongoing data collection and monitoring of social and economic contributions.