Ecasa Toolbox

Socio-economics of aquaculture

Developing a framework for a sustainable industry

Aquaculture is one of the fastest growing food producing sectors, and currently contributes just under 40% to world supplies of fish and other aquatic organisms.  The benefits of this development are real and visible, both for producing countries (e.g. support for rural livelihoods, improved food security, export earnings) and for consumers in the form of lower prices.  Growing concern over the environmental impact of aquaculture, however, has prompted a search for a governance framework that can guarantee sustainability – that is, a financially viable aquaculture industry in which the environmental damage is minimised. Sustainability indicators are an important component of such a governance framework, but should also include some measure of the wider socio-economic costs and benefits of aquaculture.

Quantifying environmental impacts in monetary terms

Ideally we would like to be able to attach a monetary value to the environmental impacts of aquaculture, and in some instances this is possible where a measurable effect on production can be identified. In the case of shrimp aquaculture, for example, the external costs arising from mangrove conversion (e.g. loss of coastal protection, reduced offshore catches, etc.) have been shown by various studies to be substantial.  In general, however, putting a monetary value on the environmental impacts of aquaculture is complex. This is especially true for cage aquaculture, the dominant production system in Europe. Here the external effects are typically diverse – involving water quality, visual amenity, competition for marine space, and interactions with other species. Moreover, the severity of these impacts is likely to vary according to locality, and in some cases may even be beneficial – release of nutrients or organic waste by fish farms may increase the productivity of adjacent capture or culture fisheries. However, while such externalities cannot easily be quantified in monetary terms, they cannot simply be ignored since it is clear that the public are not indifferent to the environmental performance of aquaculture. The most obvious clue to this is the fact that consumers are willing to pay higher prices for farmed fish (e.g. salmon) produced under more environmentally sustainable conditions, but alongside this there is evidence from public attitude studies conducted in the Mediterranean and Scotland that the social acceptability of aquaculture is linked to its perceived environmental impact.

Assessing the social acceptability of aquaculture

It is precisely this issue of social acceptability that is addressed within the ECASA project. The question asked is: What do people want from aquaculture?  To answer this, Project Partners at the University of Portsmouth developed a survey-based approach which aimed to elicit public and stakeholder attitudes towards the environmental performance of aquaculture. Salmon farming in Scotland has been used as a case study, though on the basis of the results we are confident that the methodology can be adapted to other areas and situations (e.g. sea bass or sea bream in the Mediterranean) where the social acceptability of aquaculture is an issue.  The public attitude survey covered five Scottish coastal areas where salmon farming is already developed and may possibly develop further in the future. These were:  Highland, Argyll and Bute, Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles. Questionnaires were sent in the Autumn of 2006 to a random sample of householders on the Electoral Registers for Scotland, generating a total of 745 usable responses. The survey of stakeholders commenced in Spring 2007, and consisted in total of 39 key representatives of the following interest groups: regulators (5), industry (3), environmental organisations (6), wild fish interests (6), economic development agencies (6), independent experts (10), and consumer organisations (3).

The results indicate that public attitudes towards the future of the salmon farming industry are a function of the weights people attach to the beneficial effects of industry expansion (i.e. job creation, increased supplies, etc.) as against the perceived negative effects associated with environmental degradation. Specifically, those who favoured an expansion of salmon farming generally accorded the lowest priority to minimising environmental damage and correspondingly more weight to economic objectives. Conversely, those who wanted to see a downsizing of the industry put more weight on environmental issues.  These results from the general public provide a benchmark against which to compare the findings of the stakeholder survey, which exposed marked differences between the interest groups in the relative importance attached to the various socio-economic and environmental performance indicators.  There is a debate to be had over the implications of these differences, but at the very least it implies that stakeholder influence over aquaculture policy needs to be judged in terms of how far the preferences of particular interest groups are congruent with those of the public at large. 

The survey of the general public also found significant regional variations in attitudes towards salmon farming, with a higher proportion of respondents in the Western Isles favouring an expansion of the industry than in any of the other coastal areas covered by the survey. Part of the explanation for this difference may lie with the varying economic profiles of these five regions, and it is noteworthy that the Western Isles is an area where unemployment rates have historically been above those for the rest of Scotland and also that here the jobs density is below that of the other regions surveyed. In the Western Isles, more so than elsewhere, we might therefore expect that attitudes to any industry which creates jobs and sustains livelihoods would be positive. Support for this argument was provided by a statistical analysis of the survey data showing that neighbourhood characteristics (specifically, area deprivation) appear to have a significant influence on public preferences towards aquaculture development.  If that is the case, then it suggests that the way people evaluate the trade-off between the socio-economic and environmental effects of aquaculture cannot be separated from the local and regional context in which such choices are made.