Australia’s peak fisheries research body has labelled social media a threat to the country’s emerging aquaculture industry, claiming influencers can undermine confidence using misinformation.
- Australia’s fisheries research body says social media misinformation is a “threat” to aquaculture
- Tasmania’s salmon farmers have been targeted for criticism, including through social media
- A federal inquiry is examining ways to develop Australia’s $1.5 billion aquaculture industry
In a submission to a federal inquiry into the $1.5 billion industry, the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation said campaigns on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter posed a reputational risk to operators.
The suggestion comes as parts of the industry – most notably Tasmania’s salmon farmers – face growing scrutiny over their social and environmental records.
This year, salmon producers were rocked by allegations in the book Toxic written by celebrated author Richard Flanagan, whose claims sparked a wave of social media activity.
It followed similar attacks on the industry five years ago when concerns about salmon farming first became prominent.
The FRDC said changing consumer and public demands presented an opportunity for aquaculture providers, but the power of social media indicated there were dangers as well.
‘Misinformation’ poses risks
“A threat that needs to be addressed is consumer disruption from social media influencers that can pose reputational risks to markets,” the corporation said in its submission.
The inquiry by the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources, which is chaired by Liberal MP Rick Wilson, is examining ways to develop Australia’s aquaculture industry.
According to the FRDC, aquaculture is the fastest-growing food industry in the world, worth $243 billion and providing more than half the seafood consumed by humans.
While noting the industry had grown significantly in recent years, the corporation said Australian aquaculture made up less than 1 per cent of global output.
Despite this, it said there were big opportunities for Australian producers, particularly in the higher-value markets such as Atlantic salmon, barramundi and oysters.
And it said while most aquaculture took place in state waters, there was room for Canberra to help by streamlining environmental approvals and opening up Commonwealth waters farther out to sea.
Premium markets the focus
“Australian aquaculture focuses on premium products that generate significant economic value,” the FRDC noted.
“While [the] Atlantic salmon farming industry is already the largest primary industry in Tasmania, other aquaculture sectors … are now, relative to other agrifood industries, emerging to become significant contributors to the value of Australian agriculture.”
The federal parliamentary inquiry coincides with a surge of interest and investment in Australian aquaculture from deep-pocketed investors.
Among them is Australia’s richest man, Andrew Forrest, who has plans to become a major shellfish and finfish producer in WA and who is also vying for control of Tasmania salmon farmer Huon.
Pitted against Dr Forrest is Brazilian company JBS, which is the world’s biggest meat processor.
At the same time, plans to develop the world’s biggest prawn farming operation across several sites in WA and the Northern Territory are being backed by Tasmanian entrepreneur Jan Cameron.
In its submission, ASX-listed Huon Aquaculture said the industry was at risk of a backlash because it had failed to properly educate the public about the scientific merits of salmon farming.
Biosecurity the key: Huon
Huon also suggested that uncertainty about where aquaculture zones should go was “leading to … confusion and opposition increasing within certain communities”.
And it warned of the consequences of “poor” biosecurity practices, saying such failures had caused “catastrophic industry collapses” in other countries through the spread of fish diseases.
“The salmonid farming industry is a considerable contributor to the Tasmanian economy and community and warrants reasonable, appropriate policy, regulation and planning that is informed by the best science, which is exactly what is happening,” Huon said.
“Currently, these facts have not been appropriately messaged to the greater community by both government, its agencies and scientific institutions.
“[This creates] unnecessary and unfounded community concerns which could lead to … even more unnecessary regulatory requirements and additional compliance costs.
Industry at a ‘crossroads’
Lisa-Ann Gershwin, a marine biologist formerly with the CSIRO, and Dain Bolwell from the University of Tasmania, said the salmon farming industry was “at a crossroads”.
They said that while there were “positive aspects to growing the salmon farming industry”, to date, it had come with unacceptable environmental and animal welfare costs.
Dr Gershwin and Dr Bolwell argued the industry was on a “shaky foundation right now, and growth without stabilising that foundation will only make the situation more precarious”.
“The faster the industry grows, the more farms, the more pens per farm, and the more fish per pen, the faster the habitat degrades,” they wrote.
“And the faster the habitat degrades, the more fish do not make it to slaughter.”
What’s more, Dr Gershwin and Dr Bolwell said the industry’s support from consumers could quickly turn to abandonment unless it improved its performance.
“And there is an increasing awareness of the downsides of the industry, which in turn affects its long-term economic viability.”
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