Beyond social license to operate

Posted in Industry News

I have written this article as a way to share some thinking and perhaps demystify the concept of social licence to operate (SLO).

The concept of social licence has received a lot of attention and many competing definitions.

For this article, the concept of social licence is defined as follows: “At its simplest, it refers to the acceptance granted to a company or organisation by the community… Of course, anyone running a company would be aware that there are many formal legal and regulatory licences required to operate a legitimate business. Social licence is another thing again: the informal ‘licence’ granted to a company by various stakeholders who may be affected by the company’s activities. Such a licence is based on trust and confidence – hard to win, easy to lose” (The Ethics Centre, 2018).

How do we define SLO? There is no single, agreed definition but it is generally understood that SLO is the community’s OK for commercial fishing, for example, to exist.

At this point, it’s important to note that my industry is fully aware that it accesses the marine resource, a public resource that should and is being managed for the long-term by industry and government.

The concept has support from almost all elements of industry, government and conservation sectors bordering on the fanatical. I was once a true believer but now I am not so sure. My hope is you will at least give me a few minutes to think about the following logic to a move beyond a SLO.

Unfortunately, SLO has so permeated my industry that questioning its value is unthinkable. So, let’s explore the unthinkable and start unpacking SLO – and its undermining of the Australian commercial fishing industry. No business needs the approval of the community to legally trade. You would hope business owners understand the market and are doing everything in their power, under the law, to ensure they are trading legally.

This is the situation across the Australian seafood industry. Every commercial fishery is managed with legislation over every aspect of its operations: (1) food safety; (2) vessel safety; (3) fisheries management; (4) vessel monitoring via vessel monitoring systems (VMS); (5) the use of video cameras to monitor our operations; and, (6) in some fisheries, the implementation of third party certification such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

The argument that commercial fishers need acceptance from “the community” and “stakeholders” is really reflective of the following:

  • “the community” – this means the individuals that actively support groups like WWF Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS); and
  • “stakeholders”  – that support groups like WWF Australia, AMCS, Animals Australia or any detractor of commercial fishing, such as radical recreational fishing groups.

The term SLO is used as a means to undermine commercial fishing and, if my industry is accused of not acknowledging and-or complying with its SLO obligations, politicians react so as to appear to be safeguarding our marine resources.

I am particularly disturbed that the concept is “an informal licence”. I would argue legislation and oversight from industry, its representatives and legislation developed for the public benefit should be enough to allow us to operate in the marine environment.

Commercial fishers do not pollute the marine environment and are continually developing technology to help target the species that can be legally harvested.

SLO has devolved into a way to sell negative messages to the community about commercial fishing. There will always be a component of the community that either distrusts or outright hates food production and, in particular, commercial fishing.

The Fisheries Research & Development Corporation has published a report, Unpacking the consumer seafood experience: a 2019 update, providing some support for the argument that Australians support the commercial seafood industry.

One of many questions amongst a pool of 2,002 respondents (cited as n = 2002) was: “Do you think Australia’s fishing industry (that is the industry as a whole) is sustainable?” Overall (n = 2,002), Yes: 46% (n = 921), No: 23% (n = 460 and Not sure: 31% (n = 621). The data can be analysed in many ways and leads to the following questions:

  • those that are not sure about industry’s sustainability represent an opportunity for industry to consider how it engages with the community about its sustainability credentials; and
  • with the 23 per cent that do not believe we are sustainable – and a component of these individuals will be infrequent or non-seafood eaters or actively supporting and-or believe in the propaganda from conservation groups – how much time and funds could be spent trying to convince a percentage of the community that will never change their views or perceptions?

How does industry move beyond SLO? This question is complicated by the fact that, in this country, SLO is used by politicians as a way to hold industry to account when this is already achieved via legislation and an almost relentless review of how we operate by fisheries managers. Hold us accountable but don’t use a concept that was:

  • developed in the mining industry in the context of non-renewable resources; and
  • no researcher can answer the question about how we measure SLO, so, for example, does my industry have 80 per cent SLO of 12 per cent SLO or somewhere in between, so how and what the hell are we measuring?

Unfortunately, SLO has been weaponised by detractors of my industry and it seems no-one wants to call them out for their verbal diarrhoea (conservation groups, radical recreational groups and politicians like the former Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke that played to the Greens constituency).

It has taken a pandemic to reacquaint Australians with their commercial fishers and vice versa. The trend toward buying local and supporting local food producers is well worth encouraging but, more to the point, further conversations need to be had regarding how industry can maintain and grow its profile amongst the community.

The unfortunate part of SLO is that it has been used as part of the gaslighting of my industry from primarily environmental-activist groups and politicians that want to be seen as being pro-conservation at any cost.

Note: This article was first published in the Queensland Seafood no 3, pp. 10-11.

References: (1) The Ethics Centre 2018, Ethics Explainer: Social Licence to Operate: https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-social-license-to-operate/ and (2) FRDC, Unpacking the consumer seafood experience: a 2019 update: file:///C:/Users/user/AppData/Local/Temp/2019_Unpackingseafoodexperience_report.pdf

Author: Eric Perez, Queensland Seafood Industry Association (QSIA) Chief Executive Officer

Image: Shane Snow, QSIA Director

The content of this post is provided for information purposes only and unless otherwise stated is not formal QSIA policy. The information on these posts are provided on the basis that all persons accessing the information undertake their own responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of it.

Fisheries management leading to fewer and fewer commercial fishers