Cobalt Currents – Social Licence & Wild Catch Fishing: How do I Strengthen It?

This is the 3rd and final post in Cobalt’s Social Licence blog series exploring the fundamental importance of Social Licence to Operate (SL2O) to the professional wild harvest fishing industry.  This post looks at ways to build and strengthen Social Licence.

To recap – Strong Social Licence will support continued operation of fishing businesses, reduce regulatory burdens, and increase business security.  With valuable subsidiary benefits like:

  • improved market access
  • more highly valued local product
  • greater community and political recognition of fishing’s benefits – more social capital
  • and less dependence on government and regulators.
Images courtesy De Brett Seafood

Images courtesy De Brett Seafood

Securing SL2O is about demonstrating that fishing businesses (and industry more broadly) are meeting or exceeding public expectations for sustainable fishing, including delivering more benefit than cost.  And it’s about making sure the right people know about those benefits, at the right times and in a form they can relate to.

Currently, the most compelling metric under-pinning public expectations about sustainable fisheries is environmental performance; encompassing target stock sustainability, by-catch sustainability & habitat protection.  Product quality and food safety are also very important.

Unpacking the definition of SL2O provides plenty of clues about strengthening it.  So i’ve done that below, pulling out key elements from two contemporary definitions used in the 1st part of the series and using them to guide this post.

From Dr. Kate Brooks: “A social licence to undertake a particular activity is granted by stakeholders, associated with the activity or the general community.  It is the community approval to undertake a particular activity and is based on the beliefs, perceptions and opinions held by stakeholders in a resource or a project”.

And Dr. Nicki Mazur: “like any primary industry the wild catch sector’s sustainability ultimately depends on what is ecologically possible, how well that industry generates benefits in excess of costs, and how consistent the industry’s practices are with prevailing social customs and norms – that is, its social acceptability”.

SL2O is based on the beliefs, perceptions, and opinions of people

We’ve said previously that SL2O changes over time; across communities, interest groups and regions; and from issue to issue. For a business to meet public expectations we need to know what they are in relation to our particular issue or activity, in our region/community, and at that point in time.

So understanding the values, beliefs and and norms of the public, and influential fishing industry stakeholders, is one of the most important precursors to securing SL2O.  Hence the need for regular monitoring; tuning in to those who can be most influential in shaping the public acceptability of your fishing business; and those who are most likely to influence government regulations and policy.

Kate Brooks expressed it nicely in comments on an earlier post:

“Social licence has until most recently been perceived for various reasons as something to respond to; a circumstance requiring a ‘reactive’ response. However, I think it is really important for the industry to understand (as any industry dealing with  SLO needs to – just ask the mining industry!) that the best way to procure a social licence to operate is to be proactive – out listening to the public’s concerns BEFORE they are an issue, identifying how the industry’s behavior addresses and ameliorates these concerns and be out there, loudly telling the public about what the industry is doing for them, in a collaborative, friendly way.”

In general, fisheries and environmental management law and policies are largely consistent with public expectations & social norms ( and usually aligned with the public interest).  Thankfully we know that these more deeply held personal and community values are unlikely to change quickly – but this also means they can be difficult to influence…

SL2O is based on what is ecologically appropriate

Seal pup Moruya

We’ve seen that environmental sustainability is the key metric driving social acceptability of professional fishing.  Generally, the public support professional fishing, contingent on good environmental performance. 

Quite reasonably, the fishing industry relies on fisheries & environmental management regulations and policies to define acceptable levels of sustainability.  The idea being that once these benchmarks are set and understood, fishing businesses can get on with what they do best; catching and selling high quality seafood as efficiently as possible.

By contrast society’s understanding of sustainability can be incomplete, and is often subjective.  It can also be dramatically influenced by clever campaigns and vested interests.

As well as sustainability, Animal welfare considerations are becoming more important for wild harvest and recreational fisheries.  Understanding these trends, and how key stakeholders and the public might respond to them is critically important.  Looking for common ground, where public expectations and efficient fishing & business operations converge, can help to meet societal expectations at least cost.

As an example Ike Jime (brain spiking) is a well established & widely used practice for killing fish humanely (depending on species’ and fishing methods).  Combined with good handling and appropriate refrigeration/ice it can help ensure high quality, high value product. This can address public expectations for humane treatment and business imperatives simultaneously.

The public and fishing businesses want to see the best possible return from fisheries at least possible impact and cost. Fishing operations that achieve and communicate win-win outcomes in language that people respond to will strengthen social acceptability.

SL2O is based on how well industry generates benefits in excess of costs

As well as sustainability, recent research shows that communities value high quality locally sourced seafood; and the importance of securing that food supply for domestic and export markets. Some of the benefits are more compelling than others, and the relative importance of these benefits will also vary across fisheries, and regions.

And if costs or impacts arising from fishing are known and understood, and constructively debated, they are more likely to be reduced.  This can build trust and improve efficiency simultaneously.

This suggests there’s real value for fishing businesses & management agencies to continue their work to build tighter management frameworks that are practical for industry.  By contrast, loose management systems that don’t control catch or fishing effort to an agreed sustainable level – or within acceptable risk limits – are not conducive to public confidence and strong social licence.  They erode public confidence and the value of access rights; and undermine regulatory performance and management credibility.

Reporting accurately on fishery performance against these management & sustainability frameworks, in a digestible and accessible format, can help to build trust.  And being open about issues & challenges can help solve tricky problems and build trust simultaneously.

SETFIA achieves substantial Blue Warehou catch reductions

SETFIA achieves substantial Blue Warehou catch reductions

As this Australian South East Trawl Fishery Industry Association (SETFIA) Blue Warehou example shows, industry led initiatives to reduce incidental catches of more vulnerable species can be very effective.  And pro-actively providing accurate catch and effort data for target and by-catch species, or actively collaborating in fishery monitoring programs, helps to demonstrate that a fishing business or sector is serious about sustainability.

This sort of industry leadership will build community and regulatory trust.  It should also improve fisheries management effectiveness and cost efficiency.

Environmental NGO assertions about commercial fishing impacts on the environment must also be accurate and objective if those groups are to retain their high levels of public trust; and sustain respect from industry, the public and governments.

Unsurprisingly, Walking the Sustainability Talk is probably the single most important precursor to strong public acceptability and lasting community support for wild harvest fisheries.

SL2O can vary substantially from one activity to another

Social Licence may be strong for one type of fishing method, targeting particular species; and weak for another method targeting the same species.  And habitat and/or by-catch impacts will also be a key factor.

Again the Super-trawler offers a useful example.  Social licence for some small pelagic – or forage fish – fisheries has been fickle in recent years.  Recreational fishers have been influential, concerned about food web disruption and issues like localised depletion that may compromise ecosystem function – or undermine fishing opportunities for larger pelagic species’ like tuna and marlin.

Image courtesy J. Susman

Image copyright J. Susman @fisheads

And Environmental NGO’s have also been influential in raising concerns about food web implications for other marine species like seabirds, various marine mammals, and marine ecosystems.

Australian fisheries scientists & managers have recognised these ecological dependancies by building them in to exploitation rates and harvest strategies.  Best practice forage fish management recommends precautionary harvest strategies, including spatial management to minimise localised depletion.

So whilst SL2O for the Commonwealth’s Small Pelagic Fishery has been secured previously,  it has been fickle.  When a new more efficient fishing “activity” was proposed; the basis for the existing, albeit somewhat tenuous Social Acceptability changed.

Environmental NGO’s and the recreational fishing community then campaigned together and significantly influenced public attitudes about the sustainability of the fishery should the FV Margiris proposal proceed.  Prior social acceptability changed quickly to unacceptability (e.g. SL2O was revoked) and political intervention soon followed.

SL2O is based on approval granted by stakeholders or the general community

Fisheries management in Australia is largely based on good science informing management strategies to mitigate risks of unacceptable environmental, economic and social impacts.

This platform provides a level of security for fishing businesses holding access rights.  The premise is that secure rights promote ownership & good stewardship of fisheries.  This promotes sustainability and more efficient business operations.

The approach is widely accepted as the best fisheries management model in the context of contemporary market economies.  The security and predictability of the framework is extremely important for efficient professional fishing.

So a fishing business relying on Approval granted by stakeholders or the general community may be held hostage to some extent by the vagaries of public attitudes – the dynamic nature of SL2O.  Community expectations for sustainability may be based on a false premise;  heavily influenced by a clever social media campaign, or subverted by vested interests.

Some practical strategies to bolster SL2O…

At the Seafood Directions conference recently, Dr. Nicki Mazur presented preliminary findings of our Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) project exploring how Social Acceptability of wild harvest fishing influences fishery resource access decisions.  We also held a follow up workshop involving a range of experienced fisheries stakeholders.  Some practical suggestions from those discussions were:

  • The importance of regularly monitoring/surveying public attitudes about professional fishing and public beliefs about industry’s benefits and costs;
  • Engage with industry critics; report progress and initiatives on sensitive issues regularly and honestly;
  • Understand who the players are for your particular business/industry sector.  Have clear roles and responsibilities for activities directed at strengthening social acceptability – both at large (national) and smaller (local) scales;
  • There are various points of influence in policy or regulatory processes and before final decisions are made, get to know and understand these, and use them;
  • We continued the perennial Australian debate about a national peak body for the seafood industry.  That debate may continue for a while… Let’s make sure the absence of a national peak body doesn’t undermine industry’s reputation and performance.  Act now to shape the industry’s future;
  • The importance of emotion and perceptions in sustainability debates.  Logic and rational evidence based arguments may not be very influential (see 2nd Cobalt SL2O blog about the inadequacy of messaging based on the deficit communications model);
  • The need to influence the influencers.  Building relationships with key influential figures – high profile chefs for example – and leveraging off their networks.  Extending the right message via trusted 3rd parties is a good strategy; and
  • Develop positive messages to guide the industry, messages that resonate with the right people and that target the public values, beliefs and norms that may otherwise undermine the fishing industry’s sustainable and profitable future.

So stripped right back there are three fundamentals to getting and keeping Social Licence:

  1. Understanding public and stakeholder attitudes & expectations about what constitutes sustainable and beneficial professional fishing activities
  2. Running a fishing business in a manner that meets or exceeds those public and regulatory expectations for sustainability and beneficial use
  3. Engaging with the public and stakeholders so that they are aware that (and believe) number two is actually happening…

That’s it.  I hope this series has helped fill in some gaps about Social Licence and its relevance to the fishing industry.  It’s a bit flavour of the month at the moment but has always existed in one form or another.  Modern communications approaches – particularly social media – seem to have shifted the balance and people power isn’t going away anytime soon.

And if you’d like to talk specifics, or work up a community or stakeholder engagement approach that suits your particular fishery, feel free to get in touch (details below).

Other useful resources:  

Michael Harte from WWF-Australia gave this presentation on SL2O from an Environmental NGO perspective at the ABARES Outlook Conference earlier this year:  It’s a good overview.

Nicki Mazur’s presentation, and a range of other great presentations from Seafood Directions in Port Lincoln late October this year should be available via the Seafood Directions Website from around mid December.

And if you’d like a copy of our final FRDC report for Let’s Talk Fish – How Social Acceptability influences fishery resource access decisions when it’s completed early next year let me know via the blog comments box, twitter @andy_bods, or via email to Or look for it on the FRDC website.

By Andy Bodsworth

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