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Fishmongering and fearmongering in Australia’s modern seafood market

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As an industry reliant on the right to access and use public resources, the development and maintenance of a robust social licence to operate is fundamental for the Australian seafood industry.

For 2016 Nuffield Scholar, Steven Davies, this realisation led to global research into the concept of a social licence to operate (SLO), it’s importance, and methods to foster and preserve it for the betterment of an industry and all of its stakeholders.

Born into a fishing family in Port Lincoln, Mr Davies is a third-generation seafood industry professional now based in Fremantle, Western Australia. With support from the Fisheries Research Development Corporation (FRDC), he set out to assess public perception of an industry close to his heart.

“We are thrilled to have been able to support this work, as the licence to operate is one of the main issues facing the seafood community today,” FRDC Managing Director, Dr Patrick Hone said.

Mr Davies discovered that it was more important than ever for the seafood industry to work strategically and collaboratively to maintain its social licence to operate in the eyes of increasingly active and critical stakeholders.

“Global demand for premium seafood is rapidly increasing, and while Australia is well positioned to take advantage of this increased demand, we need to remain abreast of modern market and stakeholder expectations to ensure that we maintain our social licence to operate,” Mr Davies said.

Mr Davies’ report revealed that one area affecting the industry’s SLO is the growing disconnect between perception and reality of the seafood industry, particularly regarding the issue of fish stocks and overfishing.

“In 2017, and for the fourth year in a row, there were no fish stocks classified as subject to overfishing in any Commonwealth fisheries managed by the Australian Government,” he said.

“Similarly, the most recent FRDC’s Status of Australian Fish Stocks Report, which determines the status of Australia’s key wild catch fish stocks in state-managed fisheries, found that of 295 individual stocks, just 17 are considered overfished.

“However, research also revealed that only 41 per cent of the population believes the Australian fishing industry to be sustainable. This divide between reality and public perception of the industry is problematic for our social licence to operate.”

The report finds that shifting public perception and increasing consumer demands are requiring industries to implement a triple bottom line approach, which includes environmental, social and governance considerations (ESG), as well as market considerations.

“The seafood industry can only be economically sustainable if it is environmentally sustainable. This is good news for both consumers and the environment. As an industry we must work together to better communicate that we are world leaders when it comes to the responsible and sustainable management of the renewable resource that is fish,” he said.

Mr Davies also examined the impact of consumer disconnect on fishers around the world, with some saying they felt ‘invisible’ or that there was limited appreciation or understanding of their efforts to sustainably harvest and produce high quality seafood for the community.

“In the Port of San Francisco, I met a fisherman, Giuseppi Pennisi, whose family had been operating Pioneer Seafoods in the area for more than a century,’ he said.

“The Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. Despite attracting up to 14 million visitors each year, until recently very few of those visitors would ever meet an actual fisher at the wharf due to the result of a 20-year ban on the sale of fish direct to the public.

“Pioneer Seafoods managed to overturn the moratorium and gain approval to sell fish to the public. The ability to do this was partly linked to Mr Pennisi’s transition to more environmentally friendly methods, enhanced operational transparency and improved public perception.

“Selling fish directly from his back deck in 2017, Mr Pennisi sold a modest 160 kilograms in his first weekend of trading. By his third weekend of trading, he sold more than 4,500 kilograms at three to four times his normal market rate to happy, returning customers who were motivated by a desire to know exactly where their fish was coming from.”

The report outlines the importance of reconnecting producers and consumers, and why access to fishers, ports and the fish they harvest should be encouraged.

“At a time when transparency and supply chain traceability are so important to consumers, we need to reconnect customers with fishers. We need to give children the opportunity to see and learn about fishers, not just eat frozen fish fingers,” he said.

“We have a distinct opportunity to provide sustainable, socially responsible and ethically produced premium seafood to the market. It’s critical that we work together to tell the real story behind the decades old, highly effective management of our seafood resources and the wonderful producers who make it happen.”

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