Research shows that building genuine relationships with the communities they operate in is more important for aquaculture companies than environmental, social or economic factors in determining whether that company gains and maintains social licence to operate (SLO) in New Zealand.

A team of Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge researchers, led by Jim Sinner from Cawthron Institute, surveyed New Zealanders to explore the question of what and who determines public acceptability of aquaculture in New Zealand.

The research team found that the quality of the interactions between a company and the community was the most important factor in the strength of a company's SLO.

This builds on their previous findings that "relational" relationships - where an aquaculture company's employees have long-term relationships, not just one-off interactions, with the community - are a significant factor in whether that company gains and maintains social licence to operate (SLO).

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"It isn't the number of times a company goes into the community, it's the quality of connections that are important. One respectful, informative or pleasant interaction can leave a better impression on the community than multiple average interactions," said Sinner.

"It's more about the long term 'we care about you and respect you', over the short term 'we give you this in return for that'."

Other important factors to SLO were economic fairness and cultural impacts.

Surprisingly, the team found that environmental, social or economic factors did not have a big influence on SLO.

"It's not necessarily that people don't care about these, but that people are more likely to trust a company to address these things if they have had high quality interactions with the company" said Sinner.

However, while economic output wasn't a significant predictor of SLO, economic fairness was.

"People care about how the economic benefits from aquaculture are shared throughout their community. This suggests that aquaculture companies should demonstrate how they're giving back to their communities, such as employing local people and using local suppliers, rather than showing how they contribute to national or even regional GDP."

They also found that SLO scores depend on who is being asked.

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"If an aquaculture company wants to find out their social licence score, we recommend surveying the people and groups directly affected by their activities, using a range of methods to reach them, from company email lists to social media channels, and direct contact with tangata whenua" said Sinner.

Find out more about the research here.