(The following comment was written by Jorgen Christiansen, who between 2009–2012 was director of communications at Mowi, at the time known as Marine Harvest. He now works as a consultant.)

The most damaging effect of the debate on the ground rent tax in the salmon industry is not the tax itself but the polarization it has caused.

Polarization is nothing new when it comes to salmon farming in Norway, of course.

Since the early 2000s, the industry has faced some strong criticism. Although that criticism has often had a legitimate core, it has just as often been unreasonable or ill-informed.

Reasonable criticism about the risks associated with sea lice, for example, has been mixed with grossly unreasonable claims about antibiotic use and "sewage discharge."

The production of salmon, when measured by all relevant sustainability parameters, is superb compared to other protein production, but has had to endure criticism as if it were the worst of the lot.

Sensible salmon producers have approached the debate with openness and dialogue. This is how to most effectively deal with conflict, but it is time-consuming work that requires a lot of patience.

The structure of the Norwegian salmon industry doesn't make it easy to get everyone on the same page. It is highly fragmented both vertically and horizontally.

In an attempt to represent all parties and focus efforts, the industry in Norway has established the Norwegian Seafood Research Fund (which handles R&D), the Norway Seafood Council (which handles marketing), and organizations such as Seafood Norway (which takes on media, policy and regulatory affairs).

These organizations are certainly useful; they fill a significant gap and take on a burden companies themselves don't have the time for.

But they can also leave a gap in knowledge within the industry. The Norway Seafood Council can, for example, do an excellent job marketing, but at the same time there are executives at large producers who have never visited a European smokehouse and have no understanding of the reality of their operations.

In the same way, the vast majority of salmon producers can leave the dialogue with the media, politicians and government to Sjomat Norge, but as a result miss out on feedback and associated insight that might make them better able to answer questions and have their own unique voices heard.

Close dialogue

The industry's local employees and their managers along the coast are well rooted in the local communities. They live there. When they are not producing food, they coach children on the football pitch, teach them to play instruments and fish in local rivers. It's an example of how industry and local communities know and understand each other on the ground.

We do not see the same close dialogue where organizations are given the role of intermediaries though. It is a major structural challenge that must be resolved and to so, we must build bridges and tear down walls.

Some companies in the industry are saying they must improve their messaging because they feel that they have not been heard, understood and appreciated until now.

That's understandable. However, they talk about communication as if it is a one-way activity. It is not. This is a bit like saying that when you are not heard, you must raise your voice and say more. That won't work.

In salmon farming, sustainability must be a competitive advantage. But the work to ensure a sustainable business starts with dialogue. And dialogue starts with listening.

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