Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Meet the Green Monster

How the fishing industry could employ public relations principles and techniques to combat a global threat posed by powerful pressure groups.

Few if any industries have been as beset with ongoing activism as the generality of the fishing industry in most of the developed world. A vicious cycle of bad media coverage, unfavorable public policies, negative advocacy from pressure groups, and consequential damaged reputation has, with growing momentum, conspired to undermine the vital interests of the industry.

Clearly, the industry’s lack of coherence translates into poor ability to communicate convincingly, which may further aggravate the situation. 

As much as failing to take decisive action will be seen as abdication of responsibility, breaking out of a prolonged spiral of negativity will require tedious efforts. A reasonable degree of optimism, on the other hand, suggests that well-planned, timely, and skillfully implemented public relations strategies can help bring about change for the better.

After all, a sound analysis of the problem leads to the unmistakable conclusion that the fishing industry has a just cause, which in principle makes a whole arsenal of powerful public relations tools available for its use, provided sufficient funding will be obtained. Bearing in mind the vast number of fishing vessels still roaming the seas, it will arguably be perfectly possible to gather a sizeable proportion of the major operators under a common umbrella. 

The implications are both multifaceted and ambitious — a recommended program of action would make use of extensive analyses and planning, reputation management, issues management, crisis communication, government relations, media relations, and stakeholder management. It should in brief involve the following:

Creating a communication platform for the industry, focusing sharply on issues of shared interest;
Setting up permanent public relations and public affairs functions;
Devising effective response programs and plans to address urgent needs;
Restoring trust and developing long-term relationships with key stakeholders.

This report looks into the question of how the global fish catching industry — as primarily viewed from a North Atlantic perspective — could utilize corporate communication strategies to tackle a long-overdue issue of antagonistic advocacy, unduly restrictive management regimes, and unfavorable public image.

The purpose is to synthesize a clear and relevant picture from a complex situation in which a number of component elements and their interplay present a fairly significant challenge.

Based on industry and academic literature — as well as first-hand experience and personal interviews — key characteristics of the fishing industry will be discussed together with fisheries science and fisheries management, and related to public relations theory and practice.

For the sake of clarity, not all views will be presented in discussions about e.g. fisheries science and management. Instead, key alternative viewpoints will be considered, as these are seen to be in alignment with fishing interests.

Conclusive findings will be presented as recommendations.

A Fragmented Industry
While the context here is confined to the harvesting sector, anyone with a basic insight into commercial fishing will know that the world’s fishing fleets differ dramatically: according to geography and culture, level of capitalization and technology, access to trade infrastructure and seafood markets, types of species targeted and gear used, all of which are key determinants of vessel type, size, and characteristics such as ocean going capacity and catch efficiency. 

For instance, in the northeast Atlantic, one of the world’s 19 major fishing areas as defined by the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of FAO (the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization), there are several categories and subcategories of fishing fleets, listed by target species and technology (2008).

An estimated 20,000 ocean going vessels, together with hundreds of thousands of decked inshore vessels and two to three million smaller, undecked boats, catch a combined 100 million metric tons of fish per year according to UN figures (FAO 2002).

Large vs. Small
As in other industries, there has traditionally been a certain divide between large-scale and small-scale fishing operations, typically at odds in terms of access to inshore waters as well as in the distribution key applied to the regulation of the resource: the small and many feel threatened by the financial muscle and political influence of the large and few, who in turn tend to view the former as another source of restrictions and potential trouble.

Concentration of Ownership
Taking such divisions to socio-economic and political levels, Ben-Yami (2003) and Allain (2007) warn against societal disruptions resulting from privatization of fishing rights, a trend discerned since the late 1980s in e.g. Canada and Iceland. 

Rights and Commons
Allain (2007) identifies fallacies adopted with modern fisheries management’s adherence to ideas expressed by Hardin (1968) — the underlying assumption being that fishing communities are unable to self-regulate, prone to some shortsighted selfishness which must lead to depletion of the resource, necessitating external control either by paternalistic state power or by large commercial corporations.

Management and Science
During the decades following World War II, fisheries science was introduced to public fisheries management in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. According to Jón Kristjánsson (personal communication. 10 June 2005), the new approaches to fisheries management were initially met with curiosity and expectations by the industry, as they held promises of increasing catches and profitability through the aid of scientific methods; however, relations gradually deteriorated between, on the one hand, fisheries scientists and fisheries managers and, on the other, fishermen, vessel operators, and fishing communities. 

Central to negative sentiment in the fishing industry is the observation that cutting back on fishing by reducing catch quotas or otherwise imposing restrictive measures has, with few exceptions, been the sole content of all advice given by the established networks of fisheries scientists to their subscribing governments. 

The issue of mistrust is further associated with perceived lack of communication between e.g. established fisheries science and commercial fishermen. Haggan, Neis and Baird (2007) point to the professional knowledge of fishermen — and the fact that there are indeed examples of good cooperation between them and scientists — even if there still might be a long way to go in terms of raising communication standards. A feeling of being subjected to a combination of arrogant neglect and abusive public policies has long been detectable among fishermen and their industry representatives, who have grown used to seeing their business and operating conditions changed on a yearly basis, often by the enforcement of drastic measures. They seem to sense that even if their livelihoods are dependent on their own in-depth knowledge of commercial fisheries, that expertise isn’t being taken very seriously.

A few independent scientists and consultants have expressed skepticism toward the advice regularly given by the officially established fisheries science organizations — such as the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, “the world’s largest marine science and advisory body” (ICES 2008) — and the corresponding policies pursued by their subscribing governments.

Read more of this report (pdf)...

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