Project investigates consumer perceptions about Wisconsin raised fish

Story by Madison Brunett. Madison is an undergraduate student majoring in LSC and the Department of Life Sciences Communication’s 2018-19 Lenore Landry Scholar.

There has been a recent trend in society with people wanting to know where their food is coming from due to concerns about food safety and Wisconsin is no exception. In an effort to include local fish in Wisconsin’s local food movement, Wisconsin Sea Grant (WSG) launched the “Eat Wisconsin Fish” outreach program in 2014. The program aims to provide information to consumers about wild Great Lakes and Wisconsin farm-raised fish, and to connect fish producers to sellers and markets.

National trends indicate that the market for fish and shellfish is projected to grow eight percent per year between 2016 and 2021 to reach a nationwide sales of $18.4 billion. As of 2011, Wisconsin’s aquaculture food fish industry was only valued at $5.5 million, leaving plenty of room for growth.

Bret Shaw, associate professor in LSC and director of graduate studies, is the principal investigator for a WSG funded project that seeks to better understand consumer perceptions about farm-raised Wisconsin fish and the needs of Wisconsin fish farmers to grow their businesses. This project brings together a team of experts from all over Wisconsin including Christopher Hartleb from UW-Stevens Point, Kristin Runge from UW-Extension, and Deidre Peroff from UW-Milwaukee.

Research from this grant will provide consumers with useful information such as how safe and healthy farm-raised fish are. It will also educate them on how purchasing farm-raised fish can help support their community. For the fish producers, the information will help them with marketing strategies to help grow their business in the future.

LSC PhD student Shiyu Yang presenting on the WSG project at the MAPOR conference.

Additionally, this grant work gives a LSC graduate student the opportunity to include her own expertise, while gaining important research experience. Shiyu Yang, a doctoral student in LSC, is bringing her knowledge of risk and science communication to the project. Specifically, Yang studies how people use information to make judgements about various health, environmental, and technological risks.

Yang and Shaw have conducted two statewide surveys to gauge consumer perceptions of locally farm-raised fish and Wisconsin fish farmers’ operational and marketing needs, to support the growth of the Wisconsin aquaculture industry. Yang has also been involved in survey development, data analysis, report writing, outreach and extension efforts, as well as other administrative aspects of the project. Their next step will be to conduct message testing on social media to see what types of messages resonate more with consumers.

“This has been a unique experience for me given the very applied nature of the project.  It is very much oriented towards solving practical problems and drawing useful implications from the research findings. I have also learned a lot from my involvement in various managerial and research aspects of the project,” said Yang.

LSC PhD alumna Laura Witzling also made significant contributions to this WSG project and is seen presenting findings with LSC PhD student Shiyu Yang at the MAPOR conference in November.

Purchasing farm-raised fish helps support producers and their communities just as buying items from farmers’ markets helps support local vendors.  In order for the farmed fish industry to grow in Wisconsin, consumers need to perceive these farmed fish as safe and healthy.

“My favorite part about the project so far is talking with the fish farmers and visiting fish farms in the state. The fish farmers have been very gracious in showing us how their businesses operate, and I’ve been impressed by what they do to assure they produce their fish in ways that protect human health and the environment.  I’ve found myself eating more fish since I’ve started working on this grant,” said Shaw.

One of the longest and deepest traditions surrounding the University of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Idea signifies a general principle: that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.  The work Shiyu has been able to participate in due to her education at UW-Madison embraces the concept of the Wisconsin Idea.

“My training is social sciences has provided me the essential toolkit for addressing the research questions in a methodologically and analytically appropriate way. My education in life sciences communication has greatly helped me develop a deeper understanding of the practical issues at hand and the theoretical frameworks around these issues. I have kept learning new things as the project moves forward, and that is wonderful,” said Yang.