Noblet: Consumer education key for growth of aquaculture in U.S.

But, the tide could be changing as new research from the University of Maine indicates the industry is poised for growth through strategic outreach and consumer education.

Aquaculture, the farming of finfish, shellfish and aquatic plants, is seen by many as the future of seafood: a sustainable, adaptable response to our changing environment and an innovative solution to satisfy growing consumer demand throughout the world.

Globally, the marine aquaculture industry generates roughly $166 billion per year, with steady growth predicted for years to come.

In addition to answering questions about supply and demand, sustainable aquaculture can energize small coastal communities that rely heavily on their relationship with the sea for continued economic well-being.

The United States lags in international markets in terms of production levels, but there is growing interest surrounding the industry in cities and towns across the country, including those in Maine.

However, for the industry to grow, there must be a general understanding and acceptance of farmed marine foods by the public.

With that in mind, UMaine researchers, led by assistant professor of economics Caroline Noblet and assistant professor of risk communication Laura Rickard, designed and implemented a nationally distributed survey to better understand U.S. resident perceptions and knowledge of sustainable aquaculture.

The questions are pertinent to ongoing research at UMaine through the Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture Network (SEANET) and to answer longstanding questions posed by industry insiders and stakeholders.

“One of the things that there is a lot of curiosity about relates to how much people actually know about aquaculture,” Noblet says. “It’s been 20 or 30 years since the industry was first introduced here and things have really evolved. We wanted to take a closer look at that.”

The team also sought to learn which sources of scientific information the survey respondents used in making aquaculture decisions and what other factors might influence their opinions or habits regarding the industry.

“The industry is similarly interested in learning more about where consumers are getting their information about aquaculture,” says Noblet. “Is their information from the news media? From scientists? From the industry itself?”

With a better understanding of consumer decision-making and awareness, stakeholders would be better able to recognize the challenges and opportunities that the industry faces in terms of growth potential and visibility.

Noblet’s team contracted the GfK Group, an international consulting firm, to administer the survey. Recipients were selected to be representative of the U.S. census, ensuring the results were based on specific demographic parameters and not a randomized sampling of individuals throughout the states.

The survey generated more than 1,200 responses from across the country and yielded several interesting — and exciting — results.

Ross Anthony, a graduate student in resource economics and policy at UMaine, analyzed survey data. During the initial clean-up stage, Anthony noticed numerous gaps in consumer knowledge about the industry. This was one of the key findings in the report.

“Public opinion, as we know it, is somewhere in the middle,” says Anthony. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in how people feel about aquaculture and there is a lot of work left to be done.”

Following Anthony’s analysis, Michaela Murray, an undergraduate student in ecology and environmental sciences, led efforts to test and synthesize the results.

“A lot of what I did was to look at how responses to these questions differed across various demographics,” says Murray, who also served as lead report writer and coalesced what the research team learned into a valuable resource for those working in field.

“A lot of what is discussed in the report is about age and education level. Those two, along with a little bit of gender, were the main demographics that played a role in how people answered the survey,” she says. “That was interesting to us.”

In general, researchers found relatively low industry awareness among U.S. consumers, which suggests public opinion may be altered with ongoing education and outreach efforts aimed at informing a collective understanding about aquaculture.

Data also revealed a need for targeted efforts to address knowledge gaps in various demographic groups, including people who are older, have less education, and live in landlocked states.

Interest and engagement with aquaculture increases in communities with high rates of seafood consumption. For aquaculturists in Maine, where the sea-to-table relationship is more pronounced, this information could be used to design impactful marketing campaigns and educational programs to increase awareness and understanding in diverse communities.

Participants expressed a desire to learn more about aquaculture and seemed, for the most part, open to expansion within the industry, as long as it doesn’t affect other coastal recreation activities.

But few respondents indicated they had actively sought information about aquaculture or related technologies. Data suggested television advertisements, social media postings, and specially designed package labeling might be the best way to reach citizen consumers.

The findings also indicated citizen consumers hold a positive view of scientists and scientific research, which suggests public outreach should be designed with a scientific lens in mind.

These survey findings and others were released in a technical report in fall 2017. While there are many public discussions to be had about the risks and benefits of aquaculture, the research team was encouraged by the general open-mindedness suggested by the responses and believe the information can be used to steward resources toward ongoing research and community conversation.

“People are really on the fence because they don’t have enough information to make a solid opinion about it,” says Murray.

Anthony adds, “There is a true lack of knowledge about aquaculture. And there is a great opportunity to help form the public opinion about what it really is.”

This spring, the team will conduct a Maine-centric citizen survey to further clarify attitudes and assumptions within the state. This additional information will help create a refined sense of the opportunities and challenges in both coastal and inland communities, and allow stakeholders to develop localized strategies to address articulated concerns.

This work, part of SEANET’s ongoing aquaculture research, is funded by the National Science Foundation and Maine EPSCoR at the University of Maine. The survey results presented in the technical report are a part of research conducted by the research team affiliated with SEANET Research Theme 4: Human Dimensions of Sustainable Aquaculture at the University of Maine.

The human dimensions aspect of the SEANET project seeks to identify barriers to and opportunities for aquaculture development with reference to stakeholder and community needs. More information about SEANET-related research is online.

Contact: Emily Baer, 207.581.2289