Getting Consumers To Care About Fishes
For many people, consuming fishes seems more sustainable and less morally problematic than eating chickens, pigs, cows, and other land animals. As a result, aquaculture—and fish farming specifically—has taken off in recent years. Despite this, there are many welfare issues associated with farming fishes, such as disease, environmental degradation, poor treatment, and the suffering these animals endure. As animal advocates confront these issues, they need to learn how to effectively bring them to consumers’ attention so they can mobilize the public to take action for fishes.
Recently, The Humane League U.K. explored eleven different messaging strategies in a series of focus groups with 45 participants. The marketing messages included the following angles:
After asking participants to engage with the different angles, the authors learned five key lessons:
- People who consider themselves “animal lovers” don’t always love farmed animals. They may engage with companion and wild animal welfare initiatives, but when it comes to farmed animals (including fishes), they tend to avoid thinking about their well-being.
- Eating fish is often viewed as a healthy, upscale, and ethical choice. For example, some vegans said they would prefer that omnivores eat fishes instead of land animals, and fish meals were viewed as a “treat” among meat-eaters. This was especially the case for salmon, and some participants associated the salmon industry with peaceful Scottish lochs.
- People are relatively desensitized to fish welfare issues. For example, seeing fishes suffocating in air wasn’t as shocking as the idea of cruelty to land animals. Some participants argued that it’s common to see fishes suffocating on the beach or in the recreational fishing industry.
- The U.K. public largely isn’t aware of fish certification schemes, except for the “dolphin-safe” tuna label. Most people view labeling schemes with suspicion.
- People don’t necessarily link fish farming to other major issues, such as climate change and public health threats. Furthermore, trying to explain the harms of fish farming often requires multiple arguments and may end up confusing the public.
Following the focus groups, the authors separated participants into three audiences based on their approach to eating and the types of messages that would encourage them to take action for fishes. The audiences included “conscious eaters,” “anti-corporate vegans,” and “uncritical eaters.” Conscious eaters are people who try to consume and live more ethically. Examples could be pescatarians, vegetarians, and flexitarians. Anti-corporate vegans are more ideologically motivated and believe that consuming fishes is wrong, mostly from an animal welfare perspective. Uncritical eaters regularly consume animal products and actively try to avoid information that might make them question their diet. For uncritical eaters, as long as the reality of farming and consuming animals is out of sight, it’s out of mind.
Messages emphasizing the disease and disgust factors associated with farming fishes (and especially salmon) resonated with all audiences, but especially unconscious eaters. This includes pointing out that consuming farmed fish is actually unhealthy, which speaks to the human safety concerns that unconscious eaters care about. Among the conscious eaters, the message that farmed fishes are treated as cruelly as other farmed animals was effective and motivating. Participants in this audience were most swayed by a protest sign that compared chickens drowning to fishes dying on land. Finally, the message of specific companies causing needless cruelty and lying to their customers struck a chord with the anti-corporate vegans who were naturally suspicious of corporations in general. In addition to these success stories, the report also highlighted messages that didn’t seem to be particularly effective. Linking fish farming to ocean depletion, killing other marine animals, environmental degradation, and pandemic risks failed to motivate any of the audiences.
In a second part of the study, the researchers tested their three top messages on a wider sample of 8,033 U.K. survey respondents. They wanted to know whether the three effective messaging types they identified in part one (“disgust” messages, linking fishes to other farmed animals, and calling out corporations for their hypocrisy) would motivate consumers to take different types of action. All of the messages outperformed the control condition, meaning that they resonated at least slightly with survey respondents. However, messages about disgust were the most effective, whereas comparing the enrichment needs of fishes to land animals was the least effective approach for inspiring action. In terms of the actions people would be willing to take, signing a government petition to protect farmed fishes was the most popular choice regardless of what type of message a respondent was exposed to. However, very few respondents said they would be likely to donate to a fish advocacy charity or write to their government representatives about protecting fishes.
Moving forward, the report concluded with general guidelines for animal advocates to improve their messaging. Specifically, advocates could be more effective by being straightforward, factual, and avoiding hyperbole, sticking to the main message and avoiding loaded messages that might lead to more questions, not overwhelming people with statistics and big numbers, and not relying on other topics that might steal the show to make a point (e.g., linking fish farming to climate change and pandemic risks may cause people to ignore the fishes in favor of “bigger” issues).
Ultimately, advocates have an uphill battle in improving the lives of farmed fishes. Still, this report offers helpful ways to make that battle easier and to more effectively communicate the harms associated with consuming fishes.