In defence of fishers’ social licence

Opportunities abound for fishers who recognise the value of social licence, but serious danger lies in ignoring the issue

By Melissa Marino

Photo of Steven DaviesFRDC-sponsored Nuffield scholar Steven Davies has investigated action the fishing sector can take to improve community support for its activities.
Photo: Evan Collis

The Australian fishing industry has healthy, abundant, well-managed fisheries “in spades”, says Nuffield Scholar Steven Davies. The industry is one of the country’s most important assets, providing consumers with fresh, high-quality seafood produced sustainably.

But in the age of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, the industry’s clean, green and sustainable credentials are under increasing levels of attack – attacks that Steven Davies stresses are generally unfounded and not representative of the industry.

“There is as much fear-mongering as fish-mongering going on in the modern marketplace,” he says.

Addressing this problem is essential to securing the future of the industry, he says. Ensuring public perception aligns with reality will enable our fisheries to survive, thrive and capitalise on the substantial opportunities the growing global middle-class will bring.

This is also the motivation behind Steven Davies’ Nuffield Scholarship study: ‘The Australian seafood industry and the social licence to operate’.

In his study, he has explored how to achieve social licence, how to maintain it, and the impact of both having it and losing it. He defines the social licence to operate as an unwritten, intangible social contract that legitimises businesses and organisations in the eyes of key stakeholders. Lose your social licence, he says, and you could lose your business.

Born and bred into commercial fishing in Port Lincoln, SA, Steven Davies was recently appointed CEO of Perth start-up seafood business Aquatic Life Industries. The business assesses investment in a range of seafood-related opportunities across the seafood production and supply chain.

He was inspired to investigate the social licence topic after finding himself increasingly having to defend his industry.

“Independent scrutiny of any industry should be welcomed, but it must be fair, reasonable and underpinned by facts,” he says.

Australian seafood producers, he says, are facing a seminal moment amid concerted efforts to undermine the industry and its social licence to operate by ‘boutique causes’, often driven by single-issue, non-government organisations (NGOs). Actions now will be crucial to determining how the industry is perceived publicly in the future.

FRDC research from 2017 shows that less than half (41 per cent) of Australians believe the Australian fishing industry is sustainable. This is, he says, despite data from the Australian Bureau
of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences showing that no Commonwealth fisheries managed solely by the Australian Government are over-fished.

Through his work as a 2016 Nuffield scholar, Steven Davies visited nine developed and developing countries – meeting with a variety of people from commercial fishers to conservationists – to gain an understanding of how to counter these perceptions and maintain social licence through the support of the broader community.

He says that the keys to maintaining a social licence to operate in what is essentially a public resource include identifying your stakeholders, listening to what they have to say, and working with them for a common outcome.

“We all have the same desired outcomes: healthy, abundant, natural aquatic resources. We are actually on the same page – it’s just a matter of being proactive in that space to deliver that message.”

Joining forces

Handled the right way, coastal communities will value and defend the role of local fisheries, their contribution to tourism, and the social and economic benefits of being associated with a high-quality, sustainable product.

From ‘acceptance’ to ‘approval’ to ‘advocacy’, there are three levels of social licence, Steven Davies says. Businesses should aim for the third, top echelon, where the level of community ownership and buy-in is so great that stakeholders “will literally chain themselves to your oyster infrastructure if anyone wants to take it away”.

Engagement is critical in achieving this – and not just with obvious stakeholders, such as customers, importers and regulators – but also with “anybody and everybody who can impact your business in any capacity”, he says.

This, he adds, includes Indigenous groups and training organisations, as well as those who may not seem like natural bedfellows: NGOs, environmental advocates and recreational fishers who have significant social currency and reach. All of these have the potential to become powerful allies; for example, respected ocean photographer and activist Paul Nicklen has 4.8 million Instagram followers, and the Recfish West organisation in WA has 700,000 active fishers.

“So do you want to be pitted against those guys, or do you want to work with them to identify issues of commonality and explore them and move forward together?” he asks. “There are amazing opportunities if you handle it the right way.”

Working with stakeholders to achieve social licence in a modern market is a matter of being transparent, and proactively opening the lines of communication to understand stakeholders’ desired outcomes. Potential problems must also be addressed before they become public issues.

“We need to recognise that any human activity has a level of impact,” he says. “So we can’t just say ‘we don’t have any impact’; but the reality is the level of impact in the vast majority of our fisheries is completely acceptable and sustainable, and that’s what we need to promote.”

Say it loud

“Well-managed commercial fisheries are actually some of the most ecologically sound industries, because they are about the sustainable harvest of a renewable resource,” Steven Davies says.

“It’s a wonderful thing to boast, but that message isn’t necessarily always put out there and recognised by the market.”

While fishers do not have to respond to every critic – and indeed, should avoid niche extremists – he says a lack of engagement with local communities and their many and varied stakeholder groups is one of the major obstacles to gaining social licence.

“People have to know that you exist. They have to know what you do. It’s about building a visible history as well, so that if you are ever under attack you don’t have to engage on the fly but can point to your record.”

Other impediments to gaining social licence and maintaining public trust include failing to deliver promises, and the fragmentation of the fishing industry itself, where aquaculture and wild capture fisheries criticise each other.

“It’s just not particularly smart, because when you are importing 70 per cent of your seafood, you should be looking for issues where you can band together,” he says.

“One thing I will take from this [Nuffield] experience is the importance of industry singing in chorus, putting out a consistent and positive message, which is sometimes missing from the mix. It should always be a race to the top, not the bottom.”

These are lessons he is taking to his own work, making engagement with stakeholders a priority and ensuring his business will deliver a consistent, positive message, united with others from industry.

Steven Davies says the Nuffield Scholarship has been invaluable. Along with his topic of choice, he has also learned an “incredible” amount about agribusiness, policy and geopolitics along the way.

With 16 weeks travel overseas, the scholarship program was a big commitment, but worth it for the “lifetime of experience” it provided in a couple of years.

“It was a wonderful thing to do and I would recommend it to anybody,” he says.


Based on his research into securing the social licence to operate, Steven Davies’ recommendations for the Australian seafood industry are to:

  • identify key indicators that affect its social licence;
  • understand that social licence is a fundamental fisheries business consideration;
  • deliver proactive, positive and consistent messaging based on independent science, in chorus through peak bodies, including via social media;
  • establish better connection between producers and consumers;
  • encourage and maintain access to wharves and fishers; and
  • provide Australian consumers with country of origin labelling at food service outlets.


More information

Steven Davies, 0447 488 831