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Socio-Political Aspects of Marine Aquaculture:

A Comparative Study of Policymaking in Germany and Israel

A Research project under the GIF (German Israeli Foundation) for the years 2008-2010

Detailed proposal


It is likely that the biggest problem currently facing conventional marine aquaculture (mariculture) is the negative public perception regarding the environmental sustainability of this industry. Based on a vast theoretical review and years of practical expertise in this field we are convinced that mariculture and a healthy environment are not mutually exclusive. We believe that significant economic potential, as well as social benefits, such as healthy nutrition and employment are hindered by a prejudiced and negative perception of mariculture. In this project, we plan to improve our understanding of the public perception of aquaculture and its role in policy making in the post-materialistic era in Israel and in Germany. We would like to address the following points:

  1. What are the perceptions of the Israeli and German public towards marine aquaculture and what are the factors that affect these perceptions?
  2. What is the potential to alter these perceptions, and to improve the negative attitudes that some groups have towards marine aquaculture?
  3. How does public perception of aquaculture affect the political (policy) process?
  4. There are environmentally positive or neutral (“clean”) solutions to overcome negative effects; how would knowledge of these affect public opinion?
  5. Is it possible to reform the political decision-making process by advocating for the use of sound, reproducible data, rather than emotions and gut-instincts?
  6. What is the role of "collaborative" mechanisms in reforming people's views towards marine aquaculture and what are the cultural differences that differentiate the Israeli and the German public in this respect?

Aquaculture: background and review   

The practice of aquaculture originated over two thousand years ago in China, Hawaii and the Middle East, yet its contribution to global human food supply only became significant during the past 30 or 40 years, as aquaculture production has increased exponentially. In fact, it is the fastest growing sector in food supply and has reached a steady annual increase in excess of 10% over the past 15 years. The largest producer of aquaculture products is China, followed by India, Japan, Korea etc.

Nutritional and socio-economic role of mariculture: The massive increase in marine aquaculture production of finfish is related to the leveling off of marine fisheries landings, as many stocks have become overexploited. Due to increasing awareness of the positive effects of fish consumption on human health and well-being and to many of the problems associated with conventional livestock production (e.g. mad cow, avian flu, etc.), it is projected that the importance of aquaculture as a protein source in the food sector is bound to grow much further. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are prevalent in fish, have been well established worldwide to be essential for healthy development of children. Diets rich in fish are not only important for children but are considered healthy for all age groups. All countries in the Middle East are poor in fish production. Israel is one of the most privileged, yet it produced only 37% of its fish demand during 2003; the rest was obtained by import. In Jordan, for example, the shortage of local fish supply is much more acute and as much as 97% of the demand is supplied by import. The aquaculture sector is also expected to fulfill an important socio-economic role by contributing to income generation and livelihood of substantial portions of the global population, including many of the poverty-stricken regions.

Marine aquaculture serves as an alternative to many of the common traditional, yet environmentally harmful, fishing practices. These practices include cyanide fishing, blast fishing, and the more accepted trawling and net fishing, and each of these causes damage to benthic and pelagic habitats and/or communities that may be avoided by farming rather than hunting marine animals.

Several research groups have shown that it is possible to support and cultivate additional organisms on the effluents released from fish farms, thereby minimizing environmental impacts. Shpigel et al. (1993) and Neori et al. (1998, 2004) have demonstrated this in a variety of integrated pond configurations for co-cultivation of marine finfish, seaweeds, bivalves and abalone. The bulk of marine finfish are reared in cages or net pens in coastal waters and in recent years, several groups, including Stirling and Okomus (1995), Troell and Norberg (1998), Chopin et al. (2001) and others have explored and demonstrated the feasibility of cultivating bivalves and macroalgae alongside the caged fish.

Environmental interactions of marine aquaculture

 Whereas mariculture may provide environmentally-friendly alternatives to fishing, this does not mean that fish and shellfish farming are benign practices that have no effect on their surroundings. As the industry developed in many countries during the 1980’s and 1990’s, many studies focused on the environmental impacts of marine aquaculture (e.g. Holby et al. 1990, Angel et al. 1995, Black 2001). Some of the environmental issues include: the replacement of natural and man-made habitat by fish farms (coastal use conflicts), the use of natural resources (e.g. fisheries by catch) in farm inputs (particularly feed) and the release of materials such as nutrients, organic matter and even pathogens to the surrounding environment. Additional concerns include: genetic pollution, antibiotics/therapeutics use, exotic species introductions and aesthetic impacts. In light of these environmental concerns many national and international non-government organizations (NGOs, e.g. WWF, Greenpeace) have established a profound negative attitude toward mariculture, often expressed in the form of high-profile media campaigns aimed at directing public opinion against this industry.

A sustainable mariculture facility consists of various ecologically functional components, including producers, consumers, suspension feeders and detritivores, which - in an optimal case - synergistically interact and essentially form a balanced ecological system. Combinations of such ecological components have been proposed and successfully combined in the form of integrated marine polyculture systems, not only in physically closed systems but also in open water net-cage systems. For example, Chopin et al. (1999) calculated that 27 and 22 nori (macroalgae) nets (18m x 1.8 m) would be needed to remove all of the phosphorus and nitrogen, respectively,  released per ton of fish per year from a salmon net pen farm. The Aquanet ( polyculture project which studies the potential for salmon - mussel - kelp seaweed polyculture in eastern Canada found that a kelp cultivation system could assimilate at least a third of the dissolved nitrogen load produced by the aquaculture site and a 30 ton mussel raft would take up ~20% of the seston (suspended particulate matter) released by the cultured salmon.

In order to operate such integrated mariculture systems in an economically-feasible fashion, it is necessary to harvest high-value products. In the proposed project, we will search for potential candidates for such products, which might include omega-3 fatty acids and glucosamines from invertebrate species, various bioactive compounds from algae for use in cosmetics and pharmaceutical products, etc.

Mariculture in Israel and Germany

In Israel, mariculture consists mainly of seabream/seabass production at 2 large farms in the northern Gulf of Aqaba and at a few small farms along the Mediterranean coast. In the wake of an extended media campaign against the Gulf of Aqaba fish farms, the Israeli government has decided to close down these sea-cage farms on the basis of controversial environmental concerns.

The general German public attitude regarding mariculture is negative, though the population has not been polled to quantify this attitude. This attitude is largely related to the early attempts to rear salmon in Scandinavian and east German farms during the early 1980’s, which were performed with little or no regard to environmental protection. Despite the technological and environmentally-friendly improvements that have been made since then in the mariculture industry, and the various scientific evidence (by Krost, Angel and others) that shows that the benthic impacts are limited to the area around the cages, the German public continues to regard mariculture as a major source of marine pollution. In this context, mariculture is an easy target for environmental problems that are actually caused by other, financially more robust, enterprises.

At the present time, Germany (as compared to other neighboring maritime countries) has not yet invested in the full potential of commercial marine aquaculture. There is only one offshore aquaculture facility near Helgoland, and a small pilot farm in the Baltic Sea. Reasons for this include: a) complicated and sometimes contradictory legislative issues, b) environmental concerns, c) zoning issues, which include a multitude of marine protected areas of different political and protection status, and d) difficult hydrographic conditions (North Sea) which make the selection of suitable aquaculture sites difficult.

Marine aquaculture: A socio-political approach to policy making

One of the poorly studied aspects of marine aquaculture in both Israel and Germany is the role of citizens, governance, and general policy making at the state level. Whereas most studies have focused on the practical aspects of marine aquaculture and its effects on environment, food consumption, trade and commerce, as well as health advantages and disadvantages, the field of policy making remains understudied.

Citizens' involvement and political participation has been one of the most studied concepts in political science. Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) argue that “citizen participation is at the heart of democracy” and that “democracy is unthinkable without the ability of citizens to participate freely in the governing process”. Barner and Rosenwein (1985) suggested that, democratic values are in essence participatory values, emphasizing that the heart of democratic theory is that the involvement of people in the process of governing themselves. Those who do not participate politically are likely to have a highly undemocratic view of the world (Knutson, 1972; Guyton, 1988). Not surprisingly, a large amount of research has been conducted in an attempt to understand forms and determinants of political participation.

One of the common definitions of political participation is that proposed by Verba, Nie, and Kim (1971): "Political participation is the means by which the interests, desires and demands of the ordinary citizen are communicated... all those activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of governmental personnel and/or the decisions that they make” (p. 9). Another, more recent definition, by Verba et al. (1995), refers to “activity that has the intent or effect of influencing governmental action – either directly by affecting the making or implementation of public policy or indirectly by influencing the selection of people who make those policies” (p.38).

In the same vein, citizens' involvement in governmental decision-making became a major field of studies in policy studies. It became part of New Public Management (NPM) doctrine, and a substantial bank of knowledge has already been accumulated in this arena, especially about its contribution to advanced policy making strategies (e.g. Berman, 2002; Bouckaert & Peters, 2002; Halachmi, 2002; Wright-Muldrow, 2002). These dynamics have intensified and expanded across North America, Europe, and in other parts of the world during the late 1980s, 1990s and on into the twenty first century. They have created a much more demanding environment for evolving bureaucracies, stressing the clear need for higher level of citizens' involvement in governments' activities. With the development of economic, financial, legal, and behavioral Performance Indicators (PIs) several formats for objective evaluations, especially from the point of view of citizens as clients or customers, have taken root in public administration literature and practice.

The main goal of this study is to offer an attitudinal-behavioral platform for the understanding of marine aquaculture in Israel and Germany. It is based on a wide range of theories that  look closely into public opinions on governance and public administration performance in various fields. Various aspects of public opinion about government services are mentioned in the literature. A partial list includes topics such as (1) the scope of services offered to the citizen, (2) their quality and the public’s satisfaction with them, (3) the degree to which public services comply with reasonable economic criteria of effectiveness and efficiency, (4) a fair distribution of public resources as citizens see it, (5) response and responsiveness to the needs and demands of the citizens, (6) sensitivity to the needs of special populations, (7) citizens’ trust in the public system and those who lead it, (8) opinions about the management style and quality of human resources in the public services’ systems (for more detailed examples see: Balk, 1985; Bozeman, 1993; Carter, 1989; Hart & Grant, 1989; Local Government Training Board, 1987; National Consumer Council, 1986; Smith, 1993; Thomas & Palfrey, 1996; Vigoda, 2000; Winkler, 1987). These variables have been used intensively and internationally in recent years as good indicators of how well bureaucracies operate. It is our intention to apply them to the field of marine aquaculture and to advance better understanding of this arena.

Today a consensus exists among scholars that public opinions about public sector outcomes should be studied and analyzed in light of clear-cut performance indicators previously developed by experts. PIs may then be used to improve bureaucratic processes and routines that for many years were overlooked. In essence, PIs reflect the increased desire of public administration to learn from private sector experiences with an eye to improving sensitivity, flexibility, and the ability to respond to changes in citizens’ demands (Pollitt, 1988, 1990). The use of PIs, especially those provided by citizens in their capacity as clients, reinforces the idea that at least a minimal level of government responsiveness is essential for the existence and sustainability of democracy in modern societies (Poister & Henry, 1994; Vigoda, 2000).

Hence, political science and public administration theory suggest that the process of policymaking is highly influenced by powerful interest groups, tradition and culture in the studied states, as well as the individual and organized activities of citizens and citizenry communities and groups. This study aims to shed light on the role of these players in shaping a strategic national-level policy regarding marine aquaculture. We argue that bringing together theories and ideas from the social sciences (i.e. political science, public administration and public policy, management, and sociology) and the natural sciences (i.e. marine studies, aquaculture, health sciences) has profound interdisciplinary motifs that can work to advance this field in many ways. The addition of a cross-cultural aspect to the project will allow comparison of tradition and social processes in at least two countries, Israel and Germany, that have some similarities in terms of social tradition and level of modernity, but are also quite different from each other in terms of geographical location, types of policy formation procedures, and diversity of public opinion.

We believe that this study has several potential contributions: (1) adding a client-based perspective on marine aquaculture, based on citizens' perspectives and their effect on governmental policies; (2) integrating a principle-agent theory to the study of marine aquaculture, and thus enriching it with interdisciplinary economic and behavioral perspectives; (3) establishing a cross-cultural study of policy making in a field that has a growing share in national and international trade and commerce; (4) exploring an alternative pattern of policy making at the state-level of modernized states, and possibly exporting this knowledge to other fields of policy making and citizenry-oriented governance; and finally, (5) pointing to some practical implications as to the role of citizens in policy making, based on the marine aquaculture example and variations across cultures and nations such as Israel and Germany.

Integrating a socio-political view into aquaculture studies

Conventional finfish aquaculture is currently subject to prejudices, which render an objective and rational approach toward aquaculture almost impossible. It is necessary to convincingly demonstrate, using scientifically robust methods and data, that environmentally beneficial aquaculture techniques are both possible and economically feasible. We hope that this study will subsequently serve as a basis for a data- and science-based discussion of the pro’s and con’s of aquaculture, as viewed from the viewpoint of citizens as clients. In order to initiate a change in the adverse opinions toward mariculture, we will examine the potential for sustainable mariculture operations on the Mediterranean coast of Israel and along the German Baltic coast. Moreover, we will communicate to all relevant audiences that mariculture includes not only the rearing and fattening of finfish, but also the cultivation of various different marine organisms that are beneficial to human needs and interests. By overcoming the popular perception of mariculture as polluting finfish factories, the definition of the term mari-“culture” might be altered to its original meaning (latin cultum = to cultivate, to nurse) in the context of land-based agriculture, where the cultivation has the potential to reshape the landscape, even in a positive manner.

In order to clarify the role of public perception of mariculture in policymaking we will perform an empirical study – including a public survey, detailed interviews with stakeholders, and analysis of the m media in our study areas (Northern Germany and Israel). We will also document and analyze the socio-political setting. This analysis will focus on the legislative framework and decisional structures to find out what bodies are involved in the process of aquaculture policy formation and in which area and level (government and/or administration and/or entrepreneurs. As public perception and the environmental potential for mariculture do not match (which is our working hypothesis) an experimental approach on public opinion will be performed. For this approach, we will refer to already existing – or hypothetical alternatives such as bivalve and/or algae farms in our study areas.

Summary of the objectives of the project

  1. to survey public attitudes in Germany and in Israel with respect to aquaculture and mariculture in an attempt to understand the challenges involved in changing these attitudes.
  2. to test the public acceptance of alternative aquaculture and whether this affects the general attitude toward conventional aquaculture.
  3. to propose a model that can explain changes in the attitudes and possibly also behaviors of citizens, with regard to mariculture policy.
  4. to use data and experience with mussels, macroalgae, sponges and other marine organisms that are or may be cultivated in conjunction with finfish, or on their own, to examine feasibility of production of extractable biologically-active compounds
  5. to use carbon and nutrient budgets and dispersal models in conventional and alternative aquaculture farms in order to demonstrate systems that operate in an environmentally-benign or friendly fashion.

Innovative aspects of the project

  1. How is public policy formulated with respect to mariculture site selection, pollution, and other environmental effects? This has not been studied before.
  2. Geopolitical importance: sustainable aquaculture may serve as a source of regional collaboration in the mid-east; e.g. a multi-national Gulf of Aqaba Action Plan (similar to the existent Mediterranean Action Plan)
  3. Mariculture is rapidly expanding everywhere and involves strong conflicts with other users of the coastal zone. As such it will simply cause more conflicts as it expands further. Focused research on the major issues at hand, especially with regard to socio-economic matters is needed to prepare for the anticipated problems
  4. By focusing on development of aquaculture systems that consist of organisms that extract particles (e.g. mussels, sponges) and nutrients (macroalgae) from the water column, we create a win-win scenario whereby mariculture improves water quality and generates revenue for the farmer.   
  5. By focusing on valuable bioactive compounds, which may be extracted from cultivated organisms, the proposed alternative mariculture practice may have valuable positive economic ramifications that may also change public attitudes toward this industry.
  6. Public health – mariculture is a reliable source of healthy (lean, low cholesterol) protein (no mad-cow prions) and fatty acids whereas natural fisheries are dwindling due to ocean pollution and over-fishing. Besides, wild-caught fishes are often tainted with mercury, PCB’s and other toxins that are biomagnified in marine food webs.
  7. In the past, there was strong German-Israeli collaboration in marine science and in aquaculture in the context of BMBF and GKSS programs, but during the past 7 or 8 years, these ties have withered. The proposed project may revive these areas of fruitful collaborative research.
  8. Environmental planning - In Israel, the power of regional authorities has strongly decreased over the past few decades and they are essentially under-funded vassals of the strongly centralized government. We plan to examine whether transfer of power to regional authorities as compared to the centralized process of decision-making may make the process of aquaculture site-selection more efficient and more successful.

Collaboration among partners

The current collaboration includes 2 Israeli partners from the University of Haifa: Prof. E. Vigoda-Gadot, the head of the Division of Public Administration & Policy, School of Political Sciences and co-head of the Center for Public Management and Policy and Dr. D. Angel from the Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies (RIMS) and 2 German partners: Prof. H. Sterr from the Department of Geography of Universität Kiel and Dr. P. Krost from Coastal Research and Management  (CRM), Kiel. We are also in contact with Dr. M. Badran, a Jordanian colleague from the University of Jordan who is a marine chemist and has expressed an interest in this project, and with colleagues from Poland and other European countries.

Prof. Vigoda-Gadot has considerable experience in designing and conducting surveys of public attitudes on a variety of issues and with a team of students and post-doctoral researchers from the University of Haifa, he will carry out the survey for Israel. A similar study will be carried out in Germany by means of students from the Dept of Geography at the University of Kiel assisted by CRM. In addition, the 2 groups will address the question of how public policy is formulated with respect to fish farm site selection, pollution, coastal effects, etc. This study will involve exchange of students and young scientists among the 2 countries for the purpose of training and gaining experience and to compare and contrast public attitudes and policy formulation in the 2 countries.

The CRM is highly experienced in the field of coastal management and is currently conducting research related to the potential for mussel aquaculture in the Baltic Sea as a means to both provide livelihood for the coastal community and to help improve water quality of the sea. CRM will collaborate with RIMS in modeling the environmental effects of conventional mariculture and of alternative mariculture systems using existing data sets. Alternative mariculture systems will be designed by examining the model outputs and focusing efforts to improve the functioning of conventional mariculture facilities.

The combination of the socioeconomic expertise of Universität Kiel with the experience in public management and public policy (Center for Public Management and Policy, University of Haifa) and marine ecology and coastal zone management and mariculture (RIMS & CRM), and the overriding attention to public attitudes toward aquaculture in both nations will provide a step towards environmentally and socially acceptable aquaculture in the open sea.


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