Communicating Aquaculture
Published on Sep 26, 2017

An essay titled Communicating Aquaculture by Ian Roberts, Director of Public Affairs for Marine Harvest Canada, appeared in The Journal of Ocean Technology Vol 12 No 2 2017.

“We’ll put food colouring in it. Make it any damn shade you want."

“Yeah, like they do farm-raised salmon. I mean, you ever see how pink they make that crap? Like Flamingo pink. Sure don’t come out of the ocean lookin’ like that.”

If you were a fan of the fictional television series Breaking Bad, you may recognize that quote from its final season. In the episode’s opening scene, drug dealers were trying to perfect their meth’s popular blue colour. Why the writers and producers of the hit TV show decided to include a fact-lacking potshot at farm-raised salmon in their script remains a mystery. We did ask them, but they did not write us back.

From a salmon farmer’s perspective, the attack on our product was really frustrating. But from a communications standpoint, it was captivating. How did this random message, whether strategically planned by a competitor, a special interest group, or Hollywood’s elite, reach the eyes and ears of millions of current or potential customers?

For those of us who raise fish for food, we know that some people have struggled to accept that more than half the fish consumed around the world is aquaculture-born. Change is difficult. But the evolution from hunting our waters to farming them is inherently logical – we’ve watched it happen on land for thousands of years. However, in terms of food production in North America, we (aquaculturists/fish farmers) are the new kids on the block and we must take responsibility for earning our acceptance as a legitimate and responsible food provider.

This essay’s purpose is not to whine about aquaculture’s unfair welcome to the food producing fraternity, but rather to help understand its genesis and explore opportunities to improve our practices, to communicate effectively and help the public better understand our business and food products.

Phillips Arm salmon farm, operated by Marine Harvest in British Columbia, Canada.

Tragedy of the Commons
Perhaps a surprise to many, Alaska was the first region in North America to embrace aquaculture. In 1974, the state legislature passed the Private Salmon Hatchery Act in response to record low wild salmon catches. Today, up to 40% of Alaska’s bountiful salmon catch originate from a combination of private hatchery and ocean net pen systems, before being released to the ocean to graze. Alaskan salmon are often marketed as “wild-caught.”

In the early 1980s the provinces of British Columbia and New Brunswick and the states of Washington and Maine began to build an updated aquaculture model similar to that developed in many parts of Europe: full lifecycle captivity of salmon grown to market size in a combination of hatchery and ocean net pens. Salmon raised by this method are called “farmed.”

Aquaculture was, and is, a response to poor fisheries management and increased demand.

To understand why we farm fish is to also understand reasons for its perception challenges. A history of overfishing our shared ocean resources – “tragedy of the commons” – has led to consumers questioning the sustainability of all seafood: wild-caught and farm-raised. While other animal proteins are rarely asked for a sustainability rating on any restaurant menu, seafood seems to require extra assurance that it is not harming the planet. Unless of course it is covered in batter and accompanied by chips.

To understand the tragedy of the commons, reporter John Stossel asks “What would you rather use, a private or public toilet?” Yes it is a crude analogy, but it does remind us that a private, rather than public resource, is much more likely to be cared for. When we take ownership of something, we take care of it. Aquaculture is a great example and, like terrestrial farming, it comes with a personal responsibility and desire to care for what is yours.

Nature’s inability to naturally supply the increasing demand for seafood in the last century has forced many technological innovations that enable us to successfully culture fish. Technological advancements include improved broodstock selection, effective vaccines, healthy feed diets, and quality controlled harvesting equipment.

Like it or not, fish farmers are held to the highest standard of food sustainability because of our association with the global inability to responsibly manage capture of wild seafood.

As unfair as that may be, fish farmers seem to have widely accepted the challenge. For example, in 2012, over half of the global farm-raised salmon sector came together to form the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI). The GSI aims to continually raise the bar by working cooperatively to improve environmental performance and transparency. As a GSI member, you are committed to certifying 100% of your operations by 2020 to the “most challenging and all-encompassing sustainability standard available”: the Aquaculture Stewardship Council Salmon Standard.

This bold move has garnered praise from major environmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, with its top management stating that by agreeing to work pre-competitively to mitigate environmental impacts, the GSI “will help push the entire industry toward sustainability at a much quicker rate than would otherwise be possible.”

Head in the Water
I feel particular affection for the pioneers who gave us the opportunity to farm fish. I have had the pleasure of meeting many salmon, cod, trout, and halibut farmers who, through sweat and many tears, paved the way for us today. But – and I do not think they will mind me saying this – communication took a back seat to raising fish. Just keeping fish alive was enough to keep one busy. Pioneering heads were literally and figuratively in the water, which left many gaps in communications to be filled by others with less than complementary views about our business.

I was certainly not an aquaculture pioneer, starting my salmon farming career in 1992. At the same time I was trying to help my salmon survive plankton blooms in the hinterland that is Canada's west coast, the connected world was starting to learn about a new computer fad called the World Wide Web. If the number of web sites critical about aquaculture on a web search is any indication (it is), fish farmers were likely last to develop a web site or post a blog (they were).

In fact, still today many leading global aquaculture companies lack effective Internet presence. In comparison, environmental organizations and seafood sustainability brokers have largely taken the lead to communicate their (often negative) perceptions about aquaculture. It will take continuous investment in effective individual and collective communications for fish farmers to represent themselves equally online. 

De-marketing 101
It is unfortunate that some seafood purveyors believe that attacking “competitors” is a winning marketing strategy. The only winner in seafood marketing mudslinging is other proteins: chicken, pork and beef. Potential seafood consumers easily turn away from the fish counter when inundated with so much negativity and confusing messaging about seafood. Salmon, tuna, catfish, shrimp, tilapia and oysters all have their days in the spotlight: negative messages sometimes crafted by fellow seafood producers or fishers.

There has been no lack of philanthropic funding to support seafood de-marketing campaigns. In 2004 the American-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation cut a cheque for $560,000 to an organization called SeaWeb to provide a toolkit and coordination for an “antifarming” media campaign that would “shift consumer and retailer demand away from farmed salmon.”

Vancouver, 2004: two salmon farmers (far left) bring their own messages to an anti-salmon farming rally.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations have expressed support for these types of anti-salmon farming campaigns, stating, “A lot of folks can take credit for the improved market for wild salmon, from the California Salmon Council and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, to the chefs that revolted at serving farmed salmon, but the programs Packard [the David and Lucille Packard Foundation] helped fund played a big part in boosting our markets and no one in our industry should ever forget that.”

From 2000 to 2009, the American-based Packard Foundation granted the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform over $1.5 million for its “Farmed and Dangerous” campaign based in British Columbia, Canada.
It is my opinion, and shared by most other seafood purveyors, that our collective best interest is to promote all seafood for its clear benefits: an economic boon for rural regions, an environmentally wise animal protein choice, and a clear benefit to human health. Let’s get people walking straight past the hot dog aisle and toward the seafood counter.

The Media Filter
In 2013 I was shocked to read a headline on claiming that research had found that “farm-raised salmon contains substantially more harmful toxins than wild salmon.” I was quite certain that claim was untrue, but the article quoted “science,” so surely it was me that was wrong? But like the telephone game we all played in school, a quick source check found the headline was far removed from the actual research. The headline was derived from an article, which was derived from a press release, which was derived from an abstract summarizing a science study, which was derived from the peer-reviewed text of the study. The two studies cited by Dr. Oz actually stated “organochlorine pesticide exposure through consumption of British Columbian [wild and farmed] salmon is found to be low” and that “farmed salmon are an appropriate source of EPA and DHA” and contain an “acceptable Omega 3 to 6 ratio.” When challenged with these facts, Dr. Oz’s research team removed the web page. The positive health benefit of consuming salmon is well established, and it is clearly unacceptable to suggest science-based objection where one does not exist. 

Unfair or unbalanced journalism is not an aquaculture problem. You can find examples of fact-starved articles for any topic. But in this age of “citizen journalism” and global connectivity, it is unfortunately becoming more common and far less accountable. Today you are more likely to spot Richard Simmons than to engage with the author of “Eating tilapia is worse than eating bacon.”

And if you are hoping for a brilliant answer to “our only problem is the media,” I'm going to thoroughly disappoint you by stating the obvious. Our response needs to be to continue building relationships with journalists, bloggers and other key influencers who show genuine interest in our business. Yes, this means meeting face to face, and not just via social media. It means being honest, being vulnerable, being available, owning mistakes, bragging about significant achievements, and being confident to ask for balance or correction if required. 

Mea Culpa – It can Happen
In 2002, Dr. Sanjay Gupta explained to a CNN news audience how he believed farm-raised salmon receive their colour. Dr. Gupta communicated, with unfettered authority, that salmon were “injected with a red dye.”

60 Minutes with Dr Sanjay GuptaAuthor Ian Roberts (right) speaks to 60 Minutes host Dr. Sanjay Gupta at a salmon farm in British Columbia, October 2013.

In 2013, Dr. Gupta joined me at a salmon farm to film a segment for the CBS news program 60 Minutes. I spent the day discussing our business: what we do well and what we are working to improve upon. Of course, we also discussed how a salmon’s flesh turns pink. Included in the program's airing of “Saving the wild salmon” was Dr. Gupta’s updated understanding of why and how salmon turn pink, saying, “It’s not accurate to call these ‘artificial dyes.’ I think people conjure up this image of the farmed salmon being injected with something that causes it to turn that pink colour. That’s not what’s happening here, it’s a much more naturally occurring process where the farmed salmon eat a type of food that causes a reaction of the body just like the wild salmon does, and that causes that more pinkish colour.”

Thank you Dr. Gupta and thank you 60 Minutes.

More and More Champions
When I tour individuals around my company’s salmon farm I often hear “Geeze, if you could bring everyone out to tour your farm, you’d never have to communicate again. This is great!”
7.6 billion tours ... that will be difficult.

We know many people have little understanding of aquaculture, as they never get to see it for themselves. However, I am confident that if we continue to develop positive relationships with key stakeholders, if seafood producers and fishers effectively promote all seafood for its clear benefits, if farmers continue to build on their responsible and remarkably efficient use of resources, and if industry leaders continue to work cooperatively to reduce environmental impacts and increase transparency, we will gain many more champions of aquaculture. 

Yes, even those dodgy drug dealers in Breaking Bad can be saved. But I will leave it for someone else to spend a day touring a fish farm with them.


Ian Roberts A salmon farmer for 25 years, Ian Roberts is Director of Public Affairs for Marine Harvest Canada, a salmon farming company based in Campbell River, British Columbia. He earned his Aquaculture Technician Diploma at Sir Sandford Fleming College in 1992 and received a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Communications from Royal Roads University in 2015. He does not fish.

Click here to download the full article.


Marine Harvest Canada Phillips Arm Industry Spotlight

Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems spotlights Marine Harvest Canada – at Phillips Arm, British Columbia. This sea pen site is responsible for producing 540,000 Atlantic Salmon per grow out cycle. Throughout this video, you’ll hear from Marine Harvest’s Ian Roberts – Director of Public Affairs, Paul Pattison – Site Manager, and Ryan Wogan – Assistant Manager, as they explain their process of fish farming; starting their salmon in land-based freshwater Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) before being placed in sea pens for continued growth. Globally, Marine Harvest supplies one fifth of the world’s farm-raised salmon: a tasty and healthy product that we are pleased to highlight in this video.

Pentair Industry Spotlight takes you behind the scenes of aquaculture. With the industry growing, we are offering an inside look into the different farm types, species grown, and most importantly, the people who make it all happen.