Smart Solutions vs. Clumsy Choices

Image Sang Hyun Cho at Pixabay CC BY 3.0


The Wicked Problem of Salmon Farming

In science and politics, there is a concept known as 'wicked problems' [1]. Not wicked like mean or manipulative, but wicked like tricky, slippery, difficult to circumscribe and impossible to solve. Tame problems like algebra or subtraction have a single clear and definable answer. Even calculus, which seems pretty hard, is still tame because it is solvable with one true answer. Wicked problems have multiple stakeholders, multiple right answers and unfortunately, what's right for one group is wrong for another. The reason wicked problems are so tricky is because someone always gets screwed.  

The most obvious wicked problem today is climate change, but there are also things like world hunger, world peace, capitalism, and land use. In Tasmania, probably our biggest wicked problem of the moment is salmon. The state needs growth and people especially in small towns and remote communities need jobs, but once you alter certain key aspects of an ecosystem it can be very resistant to bouncing back. Both sides of this debate need rational thought, because there's no going back from some of the potential outcomes in both directions. 

Much has been made in recent years about all the uncertainties surrounding salmon farming -- climate warming, disease, tipping points in the ecosystem, recovery times for the dead zones under the cages, etc etc -- and the need for the precautionary principle in the face of these uncertainties. But this section is about something far trickier. The wickedest part about salmon farming isn't the uncertainties, it is the contradictory certitudes [2], that is, where people know the answers, it's just that different groups have answers that are irreconcilable with each other. To paraphrase one expert on dealing with uncertainty, "We are not looking for optimal solutions, we are just looking for something that will damn well work" [2]. 

Currently, some of the more obvious stakeholders in the salmon farming debate include:

  • The salmon farming industry itself, and within that, each of the companies with competing interests
  • Employees of the salmon industry, because they suffer the most from unsustainability
  • Investors in the salmon industry, because they've put their money on the line and want a good return for a long time
  • The regulator, because the public expects this to be strong and effective
  • The Government, because public perception is everything 
  • Other aquaculture industries, like oysters and mussels, because they are affected by netwash and nutrients
  • Commercial and recreational fisheries, because these are public waterways
  • People who live along affected coastlines, like the Channel and the Peninsula, because the health and financial consequences they bear may be profound
  • Communities in areas slated for expansion, like the NW coast
  • Citizens of cities like Hobart, whose drinking water may be affected by toxic algal blooms 
  • People who eat salmon and desire a low cost healthy product
  • And most importantly, our coastal ecosystems because all the rest crumbles if the ecosystems collapse

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How do we get unreconcilable perspectives working together on this important issue? Here's a few thoughts... please do reach out if you would like to add more... 

1. Not a Competition. This is not a competition where we should seek a clear winner and one or more losers. Let's find common ground and build a vision that works for multiple diverse groups. Even if we don't end up with the exact outcome that some may want, if there is legitimate partnership of a broad range of voices in the decision-making, we can most likely all live with it. 

2. It's about Respect. People have different perspectives, and just because they may disagree doesn't mean they don't have ideas worth hearing. Finding ways forward through wicked problems means not simply where one side makes a decision and the other has to live with it, but that all the sides affected are partners in the formation of the questions and the deliberations about the answers. 

3. Healthy Change. It is equally inevitable that we will have a salmon industry and that it can't continue like it is, so let's decide rationally what we want that to look like. The two main directions that this debate is being pulled -- full steam ahead for jobs and growth vs caution so that we don't end up with Macquarie Harbour 2.0 -- seem diametrically opposed. But what if they aren't? Both sides want and need sustainability. Let's talk openly about how to get there from here, rather than each side trying to out-shout each other. 

4. Citizens' Jury. There exists an innovative construct whereby a number of citizens can be chosen at random and offered the opportunity to understand and make recommendations on the outcome of an important local issue. This involves formulating the right questions, gathering the right information, hearing from the right experts, and deliberating with others for an informed outcome. These have been used many times with great success, because they get around the problem of bias and vested interests. Key to this process are the Government respecting and adopting the recommendations that a representative set of informed citizens has made, and the community having confidence that the process really was fair and reasonable. A citizens' jury should be considered toward helping jiggle loose the deadlock over salmon farming. 


[Click here to go to Wicked Problem References]