Image Community Protest copyright L. Gershwin


What is Social License?

In March 1997, just as the new millenium was about to dawn, a new paradigm was also just beginning. Mining had become more unpopular in the United States than even tobacco [1]. At a small confererence convened by the World Bank, an executive with the international gold mining company Placer Dome Inc. gave a presentation on political risks in the mining sector [2]. In that talk, that executive, a fellow named Jim Cooney, legitimised the power of the people and in doing so, changed the world. Cooney articulated his view that mining in developing countries came with two distinct types of political risk: firstly, the conventional type involving legal approval and government permits to execute a project, and secondly, cultivating public support to avoid instability. Social license involves three central components: legitimacy, credibility, and trust [3], and has been called "a metaphor which compares the power of communities with the power of governments" [1]. Today, the concept of 'social license' has spread well and truly beyond mining, and applies broadly to any industry that is vulnerable to potential financial and reputational damage if it ignores community concerns. 


Social License and the Tasmanian Salmon Industry

According to The Australia Institute in a report on risks to the Tasmanian salmon industry, "Social licence to operate is informal community and stakeholder acceptance of an industry, company or project. Projects without social licence may be legally and financially sound, but still exposed to reputational risk, community activism, regulatory and legislative changes, and so on. It is not always clear when a company has a social licence, but it is obvious when the company does not have it" [4]. Indeed, it seems clear from media in recent years that the salmon farming industry in Tasmania is in trouble. 


Commercial in Confidence (a.k.a. Secrecy)

The extent to which the salmon industry makes data public is quite limited, creating a vicious cycle of distrust. This trend holds true for all the 'secret squirrel stuff', as it has been called [5], from environmental monitoring to food-safety testing to vulnerability to climate change. It is easy to imagine why, of course, as no company wants to air its dirty laundry in public. In the words of one scientist, "Here was a vexed question for them [the industry]; in that they very much didn’t want a report to go out there telling the world that they were in trouble with climate change. So we had this sort of underlying comment that we really had to come up with a positive report at the end of it, [a report suggesting] that it was all quite manageable, because the last thing they needed was to have the share market take notice that they were actually vulnerable" [5]. 

However, secrecy can become a greater liability than the potential damage of the information being kept secret. The Tasmanian salmon industry is beholden to the community for the resources that it gets for free. Private use of public waterways [4]. Free water from the rivers, and the right to pollute. Free 'farmland' along the coastlines and the right to pollute. The right to harm flora and fauna. The right to permanently alter the landscapes, seascapes, and soundscapes [6]. Plus taxpayer-funded cash grants to build greater capacity [4]. As the community has become less trustful and more suspicious as the trustees of these waterways, of native species, and of subsidies, the industry's secrecy has become justification for activism [5]. 

The Tasmanian government has been happy to essentially look the other way on many aspects of non-compliance by the salmon industry, from nutrient pollution to animal welfare to marine debris to human health and safety and so much more. But where the government may feel powerless, communities across the state are rising up and saying "Enough!". 


The Precautionary Principle 

We observe the marine environment degrading, such as build-up of slimy algae where clear water used to run, and we observe jellyfish blooms and mass fish deaths. When it gets this bad, we know something is wrong. 

The precautionary principle is a risk management strategy to cope with uncertainty so that things don't get to where they go really wrong. It is based on a concept of pre-damage control rather than post-damage control [7]. Its core features are limiting or restricting an action in the face of uncertainty, and importantly, reversing the onus of proof onto those wanting to undertake the damaging action. Inherent in the precautionary principle are proper planning, thinking through of possible impacts, being informed before taking action, and taking a long-term view – 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure' – all just common sense actually. 

The precautionary principle has entered national laws and international treaties, and is widely referred to as a central principle of environmental policy [8]. However, the Tasmanian salmon farming industry does things differently. For the last 20 years, the Government and industry have chosen to employ a strategy known as 'adaptive management' [9]. Instead of a 'look before you leap' philosophy, adaptive management basically means "dealing with any problems if and when they arise" [10], or more often, push it until it squeals, then back off slightly. 

One of the best examples of why this doesn't work is Macquarie Harbour in southwestern Tasmania, where scientific uncertainty was used as justification to blaze ahead with expansion and increase the exploitation [11]. That turned out badly, with fish farming temporarily halted in 2018 after 1.35 million salmon perished within six months due to complications from low oxygen and disease [12]. Following that debacle, the salmon industry expanded into Okehampton Bay on the east coast of the state, after this lease was deemed unsuitable for salmon farming because of low current flow and high summer temperatures [13].

On the heels of the Okehampton expansion, salmon farming was approved for Storm Bay, the large natural inlet at the mouth of the River Derwent in the shadow of Hobart, the state capital. The Government's and industry's aspiration to increase production in Storm Bay to 80,000 tonnes per year would increase the nutrient load by 2 to 4 times the human sewage load for the entire state of Tasmania [10]. This is untenable. 


Can We Trust Independent Certification? 

The salmon industry sometimes points to various certifications and endorsements that its members have had, including the highly respected RSPCA (for animal welfare), the prominent NGO World Wildlife Fund (WWF, for being 'responsibly sourced'), and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC, for environmental sustainability and social responsibility). Shall we take a closer look?



The RSPCA gave Tasmanian salmon producer Huon Aquaculture the tick of approval in July 2018 after a six year process [14]. During that six years, an enormous number of Huon's salmon died of suffocation, died of disease, died from jellyfish stings and toxic algae. It doesn't seem like those were considered. According to the CEO of the RSPCA, "Scientific research has found that fish are capable of suffering, feeling pain, anxiety and fear" [14]. But it does not appear that the RSPCA considered the agony of salmon with spinal and jaw deformities and breathing impairment due to the genetically manipulated triploid mutation that is being phased out overseas on animal welfare grounds but still in use here [15]. And it does not appear that the RSPCA considered the gob-smacking number of escapees during that time, or predation by the 15% of survivors on native species [16]. And it does not appear that the grisly treatment of native seals or the 'sonic torture' of native dolphins was considered. According to the CEO of RSPCA Australia, their approval meant that consumers could be assured that Huon Aquaculture's salmon had been farmed humanely [14]. But given the facts, we just don't see how that is possible. 



The salmon industry's relationship with the WWF goes back to 2012 [17]. By 2017, Tassal was affixing both the WWF's panda logo and the ASC's 'tick of approval' to its products: one read, "WWF partnering with Tassal to support ASC certified salmon" while the other declared, "Farmed responsibly - ASC certified" [18]. Tassal paid for these endorsements, of course, the WWF endorsement alone set them back a hefty $500,000 a year [19]. The relationship eventually came under media scrutiny and the labels came off the products. The WWF acknowledged that the industry was "having a significant negative impact on the environment" but argued that it was WWF's "hope that the partnership would encourage Tassal to improve its environmental impacts" [18]. Hmmm... 



The ASC was founded in 2010 as a joint partnership between the WWF and IDH, an organisation that leverages the interests and advantages of companies and governments to build sustainable change. The ASC certified Tassal's Macquarie Harbour farm as sustainable in June 2014, then the entire company five months later [19]. This simply beggars belief: in 2012, the production limit was adjusted from around 8,000 tonnes to 29,500 tonnes [20, 21], a whopping 360% increase, and by 2014 the dissolved oxygen had plummeted to a lethally low 5% [22]. Nonetheless, Tassal was continually re-accredited as sustainable except for a brief suspension due to pressure from the scientific community in May 2017; however, it regained endorsement just four months later [23, 24]. Note that this was around the same time that more than a million salmon died due to worsening environmental conditions there [19]. 

 ~ ~

Amidst all these certifications and recertifications, the Tasmanian salmon industry has repeatedly exhibited actions and outcomes that are clearly unsustainable by anybody's definition. There was the 2015 Federal Senate Inquiry, which revealed all sorts of unpleasantries. ... And there was the suffocation of 85,000 fish in May 2015 at Macquarie Harbour due to a drop in dissolved oxygen [25], followed just months later by the discovery of fish tuberculosis there [26]. ... And there was the Four Corners exposé on salmon pollution and salmon politics, which aired on 31 October 2016. ... And that still wasn't enough to prevent the degraded environment debacle in Macquarie Harbour that led to the deaths of 1.35 million salmon within six months in 2017-2018 due to disease caused by a type of herpes virus [12]. ... And we mustn't forget the haplessMaugean skate, whose only known habitat is being smothered in fish poo and hypoxia by salmon farming. ... And Tassal's controversial expansion into Okehampton Bay after this area had been deemed unsuitable for salmon farming [13, 27]. ... And then the controversial expansion into Storm Bay [28, 29], years before the science and regulatory framework were in place (note: they still aren't in 2021) [30]. ... And all the mass fish escapes... all the unspeakable animal cruelty issues... all the citizen complaints [6]... And yet, even as the ecological crimes continue, so too the profit-driven certifications continue. 

The ASC states on its website that, among other things, "ASC certificate holders must operate at the highest industry standards to ensure the preservation of the natural environment, biodiversity and water resources" and that "The ASC believes a farm cannot be said to be acting responsibly if the community in which is it situated is negatively impacted by its actions" [31]. This feels almost laughable in terms of the ecological crimes on the environment and negative impacts on the community that the WWF already knew about, but pales in comparison to the findings of a 2018 review by of 21 Tasmanian ASC certified salmon farms, which found 36 major and 275 minor non-conformities to the ASC's own standards [32]. 

~ ~

An incendiary analysis of the ASC-Tassal-WWF partnership was published in the international peer-reviewed journal Critical Criminology [19]. The study's author, Dr Paul Bleakley, a university lecturer specialising in criminology and corruption, pulled no punches. The paper methodically and credibly details when, how, and why the relationship was corrupt and the assertions spurious. In Bleakley's words, "Tassal’s unsustainable practices, even after achieving its certification from the WWF and while continuing to display the organization’s logo on its packaging, calls into question the system of determining which companies qualify for accreditation. Accordingly, this article has engaged with primary source material, such as independent reports on Tassal, to provide evidence that the WWF’s certification does not reflect the reality of Tassal’s practices as observed by other reliable environmental organizations [p. 7]. ... Signing off repeatedly on a business’s certification despite questionable environmental actions is tantamount to committing defrauding consumers" [p. 3]". 

Bleakley's assessment of Tassal's sustainability and WWF/ASC credibility had the wrath of a thermonuclear assault. "While it is not a crime for an environmental NGO, such as the WWF, to receive money from a business to use its logo, these organizations can become complicit in perpetuating a form of fraud on the buying public—one in which consumers are greenwashed into believing that the product they are purchasing is verified as sustainable, when it is not [p. 14]. ... For Tassal to advertise its business relationship with these organizations with the implication that it constitutes an independent assessment of the company’s sustainability is, at best, misleading and, at worst, fraudulent [p. 14]."

The take-home message is clear: if the Tasmanian salmon farming industry wants to be taken seriously for good ecological citizenship, it's going to take more than simply buying accreditation. 

Consumers are already voicing their evolving and more discerning ecophilosophy through their pocketbooks. Even by 2017, a survey by The Australia Institute found that concerns over environmental impacts had stopped 14% of respondents from purchasing Tasmanian salmon in the past six months [4]. And within just two months of Richard Flanagan's book Toxic being published, another survey by The Australia Institute found that 49% of Australians across states and political parties are in favour of a moratorium on the expansion of salmon farming, while only 15% support expansion [33].  



Regulatory Accountability

An intriguing study examining accountability theory in the context of the Norwegian salmon farming industry may provide forward guidance [34]. This research found that, in essence, the harder the accountability regime of the regulator, the more legitimate the industry was regarded in terms of public perception and negative media attention, however, this did not hold true if the regulations failed to stem environmental decline. The take-home message was loud and clear that citizens expect regulators to regulate properly, and effective accountability is paramount to public trust. 

With Tasmania's long history of the tails of industry wagging the dogs of government, voters have grown weary of the same old double standards, same old hollow promises, same old stories that never change [35]. But this one is distinctly different. With the past landmark battles of Hydro and Forestry, ordinary citizens had little influence because purchasing contracts and pressure points of influence were all high up in the echelons of politics and big business. But with salmon, every mouthful, every fillet, every meal every day is a chance for each and every citizen to directly particpate in shaping the outcome. We can all demand healthy fish and sustainable fish production, and we can choose to withhold our money from industries that do not align with our values. 


At a Cross-Roads

Tasmania’s salmon farming industry is today at a cross-roads. If it continues disregarding the health of the environment, fish will become progressively more difficult and more expensive to grow. It is suffering from its own success, and ignoring this will only make it worse. And disregarding the environment is an immense error of judgment for an industry selling freshness and wholesomeness. A sustainable environment goes hand in hand with sustainable consumer demand. And increasingly, the debate has grown to a fever pitch. Many believe that the salmon industry has lost this debate already [6, 36].

This isn't just a matter of shareholders choosing to divest or lose, this is also a matter of jobs in small towns, stranded assets funded by taxpayers, and embarassment to brand Tasmania. 



[Click here to go to Social License References]



Social License to Operate