- This study, commissioned by DFO, was undertaken to achieve the following 3 objectives: (1) To gauge the general public's awareness and understanding of aquaculture and related issues, including perceptions, attitudes and concerns; (2) to identify specific actions that DFO and its partners can take to increase public confidence in the future of the sector; and (3) to inform policy and communications
- Accordingly, 22 groups were conducted in 11 locations with a total of 138 respondents from the general public. 2 groups each were in: Halifax (NS), Saint John (NB), St. John's (NL), Montreal and Quebec City (PQ), Toronto and Ottawa (ON), Vancouver, Prince Rupert, and Campbell River (BC) and Whitehorse (YK). In 9 locations, one group of opinion leaders/informed citizens and one group of fish consumers, and in Prince Rupert and Whitehorse, one group of opinion leaders and one of Aboriginal people
- Overall, findings reveal a great deal of consistency across regions, and respondent types. Top of mind awareness of aquaculture was generally low, with pockets of greater familiarity and particular understandings in the coastal areas.
- Negative perceptions seemed to fall along a continuum, moving from east to west, with the east tending to be positive, the central areas of Ontario and Quebec took on more of a neutral tone, and pockets of the west showed a stronger negative bent. Surprisingly, there was less intense negative reaction than anticipated, although some strong resistance did emerge in specific east and west locations: one group each in Prince Rupert, Halifax, and Saint John.
- Despite negative perceptions about the current state of the industry, in many groups, aquaculture was seen to have tremendous potential, and some even wanted Canada to become a world leader.
- On the whole, people were highly receptive to positive information about aquaculture. However, often, some felt manipulated and misinformed because of the too dominant and negative information flow, largely and noticeably uncontested by DFO.
- The good news is that people are looking for a more honest and balanced opinion, from DFO, and also from independent research.
Both sides of issues need to be acknowledged, including errors made in the past. People want
all the information -- the good, the bad and the ugly. DFO needs to show what has been learned from mistakes and what they are going to do about it.
Scientific expertise needs to be presented along with enough common sense so as to make information understandable and believable. Diverse topics such as fish food, genetic modification vs. selection, carrying capacity, and Atlantic salmon in the Pacific definitely need to be addressed.
- What people expect and want from government on aquaculture is very consistent across the country:
reassurance. Overall, there is a desire and need to know the values and principles that guide the government's thinking and policies on aquaculture. People feel that aquaculture is currently under no one's control, and is fast moving past the point where it can be controlled.
- Specifically, people wanted DFO to: (1) get serious about aquaculture and take leadership and responsibility, because our health may be at risk and we only have one planet, (2) educate the public, provide proof and reassurance, and keep them informed in a balanced and honest way, and (3) get tough about regulating and enforcing food and environmental safety standards. However, the prerequisite of these strategic elements is trust in DFO.
- It is clear that the minds of respondents are dominated by doubts and fears about food safety and environmental safety, primarily brought on by negative media coverage and to a lesser degree, by personal observation of environmental degradation. Despite perceptions of numerous benefits, in all groups, aquaculture essentially raises many questions about safety. In fact, safety of food and the environment so outweighed perceived benefits that these topics need to be addressed first, and honestly, before known benefits can play an influential role in their opinions.
In the minds of participants, food safety and environmental safety are highly inter-related, along with many other aquaculture issues, such as farming operations, escaped fish, diseased fish, pollution, genetic contamination, capacity, etc. What Canadians need most on these issues is reassurance, based on fact.
- How do people we met connect with aquaculture? For most, aquaculture is far from top of mind. But that doesn't mean they don't care and that they don't feel it is important. To the contrary. Once invited to discuss the topic, it generated high involvement and had high personal relevance because it affects their personal safety and well-being, and the health and well-being of the planet. Thus, it is likely that any communication or action from the government in this area would get keen attention from the public.
- The frequent analogy linking food safety issues such as mad cow disease ("mad fish disease" or "crazy salmon") and genetically modified food ("Frankenfish") with risks related to aquaculture illustrates why aquaculture is personally relevant and why it is dominated by doubts and fears.
- Add to that the general mistrust of and anger against DFO on both coasts. This credibility issue is based on the perceived mishandling of wild stocks and the current unfortunate state of the commercial fishery. Some even said that aquaculture is DFO's Plan B. A typical comment:
Are we trading wild fish for jobs?
- How people relate to the idea that aquaculture has a role to play in the replenishment of wild stocks seems to have a
direct correlation with how they see the industry in general. For example, some people don't believe that over-fishing exists. In Prince Rupert, respondents said there used to be, but not now.
Thus, if DFO cannot establish a positive link between aquaculture and wild fish, it's leadership role, relevance and credibility could be at risk.
The issue of Atlantic salmon contaminating Pacific stock is also a strong issue on the west coast, with resonance elsewhere. DFO needs to counter all the negative "hype" currently in the public sphere, on this and other topics, such as diseased fish.
- On the other hand, in most coastal communities where aquaculture has a foothold, despite strong negative environmental concerns, there is still a countervailing positive and hopeful attitude. This was aptly demonstrated in Campbell River and Whitehorse, and especially in Newfoundland.
People see aquaculture as a new and growing industry, still finding its way. However, the time has come for it to be regulated and formalized, as any important industry, because it impacts the health of humans and our environment. There is a lot to learn from past mistakes, and DFO needs to "fess up," and move forward.
The perception is that without enough of the right control and regulation, the aquaculture industry is in the hands of people or corporations driven by the dollar, who do not care about public health and environmental safety.
- There was a very positive response to the idea of standards, but not national ones. People seemed to want national
guidelines for aquaculture, or a flexible framework, but with all aspects tempered by
regional and local input, enforcement and norms. People don't want
bureaucrats out of Ottawa making decisions for coastal communities.
Some assumed there already were standards in place, but inadequate ones. Whenever guidelines are presented to the public, the idea that they are
new needs to be emphasized, so they will be seen to respond to the current growing state of the industry.
- There are reasons to believe that a shift in the farmed fish debate is needed. For example, instead of comparing farmed salmon to wild salmon, the case can be made to present farmed salmon on its own merits. If comparisons are to be made, they can be made with other protein-based foods. This would put farmed salmon and other farmed fish in a much more favourable perspective.
- For most, aquaculture seemed to be synonymous with fish-farming. However, for a number of participants, the term aquaculture had very little significance. Several individuals in various locations mentioned the term
aqua-farming. There is evidence in this study to suggest that aqua-farming may actually be a useful and evocative term, with greater resonance and potential applications. Therefore, we recommend further exploration of this term for any new framework.
- It is possible that aqua-farming could be positioned as a unique industry, one that is not totally farming, and not totally fishing, but belonging to both sectors, one that not only provides employment, but is a renewable, predictable and viable food source, that can help feed Canada and the world.