The rapid growth of aquaculture has brought with it increased focus on the industry, by both the
media and environmental activists. Part of the problem is that, unlike farmers, aquaculturists are
essentially unable to limit the effects of their operations to their own property. As a result, environmental activists, through their skilled use of the media, have assailed fish farmers about the supposed evils of their industry. Stories in the mainstream media detail the loss of native fish species or the invasion of non-native species, when such evidence is either easily explainable or anecdotal at best.
Other headlines discuss the use of harmful colorants, when scientific opinion on artificial colorants is hardly decisive. A study proving that farmed salmon have six times as many pollutants in their system as wild salmon receives widespread media coverage. Greenpeace activists storm fish-production facilities lamenting the arrival of Frankenfish, even though genetically modified fish have yet to arrive on the marketplace.
The mainstream media are, in and of themselves, a neutral party, and would leave aquaculture alone provided environmental impacts are minimal and there are no adverse reactions to human health or marine life. Unfortunately, rather than simply report the news on the basis of facts, journalists are often handcuffed by the bounds of deadlines, and are forced to report storied narratives about the potential effects of scientific developments. Time constraints also mean that journalists tend to rely on environmental advocacy groups for information about aquaculture and its impact.
As with any industry, aquaculture must operate under appropriate regulations and with regard to due diligence. Yet, as is often the case when science and opinion collide, the result is too much passion and too little reason. Although many of its critics are properly concerned and well meaning, the battle against aquaculture has turned into an unwarranted campaign of vilification. Activists garner media attention through a wide array of publicity stunts. They then use that publicity and subsequent name recognition to obtain money for the cause.
Politicians and key decisionmakers are, in many ways, innocent bystanders to this spectacle. However, the activists promise to make life miserable for any politician who disagrees with their opinions.
Faced with what they see as no real choice, politicians are quick to pass legislation and burdensome regulations overseeing the aquaculture industry.
The industry, facing outspoken opposition, has attempted to address the concerns of advocacy groups that genuinely want to work to ensure that aquaculturists operate in environmentally sensitive ways. Other groups, however, merely wish to destroy the industry. Against such groups, the industry must learn to defend itself.
An important part of any defence is to develop a science-based communications strategy consisting of: training in risk communication that is, knowing when and how to respond to critics as problems arise; making industry representatives available to the media on a timely basis; being aware of the nature of the industrys adversaries; and thinking creatively, not only about how to present the industry favourably but also about how to counterpunch against the often spurious agendas of its adversaries.
It is important to understand that the industrys enemies will continue to attack no matter what aquaculturists do to become exemplary environmental citizens. But by understanding the motives of the attackers and preparing a defence in advance and in depth, the industry can gain control of the situation.
When activist groups no longer control the message, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to attack the industry; when the industry no longer has an apparent need to be saddled with an excessive regulatory burden, the politicians and bureaucrats will find it difficult to justify adding to that burden. To achieve long-term business growth in Canada, the aquaculture industry must become not a target for its adversaries, but the source of answers and solutions to legitimate concerns.