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Why don’t we believe Australia’s fisheries are sustainable?

We love our fish ‘n’ chips, but most Australians don’t think our fisheries are sustainable. Simon Collison/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Australians love seafood. We each consumed an average of 25 kilograms of seafood in 2010 – an amount that has increased significantly over the last 30 years. Worldwide, fish consumption now exceeds beef. Despite our love of fish, more than two-thirds of Australians think that our fisheries are unsustainable, a view that is strongly at odds with the scientific evidence.

Two current reports on Australia’s wild catch fisheries reveal stark differences in the way scientists and Australians view the sustainability of fish stocks. While scientists assess most stocks as sustainable, the community sees it differently. Less than one in three Australians perceive the wild catch commercial fishing industry as sustainable.

What we know

Last year, the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation published an extensive assessment of the status of Australia’s commercial fish stocks. The report assessed 150 stocks of 49 species, which make up the bulk of the commercially significant fisheries (approximately 70% of the commercial wild catch by volume and 80% by value).

The report tells a positive picture: 98 stocks were classified as “sustainable”, 11 as “transitional”, 39 were “undefined” due to insufficient data, and just two – Southern Bluefin Tuna and School Shark – were assessed as overfished.

This isn’t a comprehensive survey. Some stocks could not be assessed because information was not adequate. The report doesn’t assess all commercial species, or consider sustainability of the broader marine environment. But it shows clearly that more than more than 90% of the total catch of the species considered is being fished sustainably. This is good news for consumers of wild caught Australian seafood.

What we think we know

But last week, the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) released the results of a recent survey of community perceptions of the Australian fishing industry. The online survey of 1021 respondents shows that only 30% believe that the commercial wild catch fishing sector is sustainable.

Because of this gap between science and community perceptions, there is a real risk of limited community approval or acceptance of fisheries management.

In other words, Australia’s commercial fisheries lack a “social licence” to operate. This means that when controversy arises — as it did in conflict over the “super trawler” Margiris — Australians are unlikely to support these fisheries.

The 142-metre 10,000-tonne MV Margiris, the world’s second largest super trawler, arriving at Port Lincoln, South Australia, in August 2012. AAP Image/Nat Kilpatrick

Licensed to fish?

Why the gap? Other natural resource industries provide some valuable lessons.

First, the Australian fishing industry may be being defined by its past. Despite improvements in management and practises, poor past performance can contribute to today’s perceptions of an industry.

The survey released last week shows that 80% of the Australian public are unaware or unsure of changes put in place to improve fishing industry sustainability in recent decades.

Second, the community might be generalising perceptions about international fisheries to Australian fisheries. Imported seafood, mainly from Thailand, China, Vietnam and New Zealand, made up 72% of the seafood consumed in Australia in 2008/09.

Third, the public judge wild catch fisheries based on their knowledge of it. This knowledge rarely comes from people directly involved in the industry, and much more commonly comes from newspapers, radio and television. Media headlines grab public attention, yet the depth of information portrayed is often shallow and the opportunity to meaningfully learn from scientific reports is limited.

But it’s a two-way street. We need more accessible information on fisheries management, and science needs to address the issues that concern the community, if Australians are to make informed judgements.

What we think of bigger businesses

Compounding those problems is the lack of visibility of commercial fishers in many communities. Social licence is often built through personal interaction and trust, and an industry that lacks visibility has few opportunities to build this trust.

Thanks to efforts to improve economic efficiency and sustainability, Australia’s commercial wild catch fisheries now employ fewer people, and have shifted to larger, more corporate fishing businesses. Commercial fishing activity has also been reduced in near-shore areas used by recreational fishers. This has the unintended side effect of reducing the visibility of commercial fishing and the sense of familiarity for the general public. With less connection and less visibility, commercial wild catch fishers operate almost out of sight.

The shift to larger businesses and in some cases larger boats may itself reduce trust in wild catch fisheries. Multiple studies (based on energy, forestry and farming) have found that the public perceive activities more negatively if they are conducted by large businesses or on a large scale.

Fisheries policies —intended to improve productivity and encouraging economies of scale — may have the unintended consequence of reducing the acceptability of the industry.

The lack of a social licence to operate for Australia’s commercial fishing sector means fisheries can struggle to find community support when controversy arises.

But the latest FRDC survey suggests there is room for change. While only 30% of Australians believe our fisheries are sustainable, a further 37% sat on the fence. Better access to trusted information and increased familiarity with the fishing industry can help address this gap.

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