Fish economist, Dr. Rashid Sumaila, wins “Academy Award of the Sea”

Can you imagine a world without your favourite fish?

Dr. Rashid Sumaila, director of UBC’s fisheries economics research unit and professor of economics, would like to prevent that scenario from ever happening.

His interdisciplinary economic research, which integrates ecology among other disciplines, aims to ensure that the world’s global marine resources, particularly fish, are managed sustainably. Sumaila’s work informs governments and NGOs in developing policy which protects the sustainability of fish ecosystems while maximizing the socio-economic needs of people and communities.

Sumaila is the recipient of the 2017 Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Science, also known as the “Academy Awards of the Sea.” The awards honours individuals who have acted as leaders in marine conservation efforts.

The Ubyssey sat down with Sumaila to talk about oceans, economics and sustainability.

What is the problem facing oceans today?

“Each year, we take out about 120 million tonnes of fish, legally and illegally, out of the ocean,” said Sumaila. “This is like pulling 120 million mature cows, in weight, out of the ocean. What kind of system can sustain that kind of mass coming out of the system each year?”

In the past 200 years, the human population has grown immensely. In the 1800s, the world population was estimated at around 1 billion. As of 2017, it is estimated to be approximately 7.5 billion. Fish are a source of income and food for billions, and a vital part of a balanced marine ecosystem.

“We cannot afford to let our oceans die,” said Sumaila at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference hosted by the US Department of State.

Not only would it be devastating to never eat your favourite fish again, the sterility of a marine resource has far-reaching security consequences. Without food or fishery jobs, the stability of coastal communities, even entire countries, could be compromised.

Sumaila uses ecological data and economic tools to produce detailed research on marine resources.

With this information, policymakers and fish-dependant industry parties are able to make better choices about the use of marine resources, even as they are threatened by pollution and illegal fishing motivated by short-term gain.

How does economic research contribute to solving this problem?

Sumaila applies concepts like game theory to the use of a shared marine resource in order to help mankind avoid a “tragedy of the commons.”

A tragedy of the commons is an economic theory which describes what happens to a shared resource — a commons— when the use of it is uncoordinated and unregulated. For example, imagine that four people live around a lake which has a limited number of fish. The fish only reproduce once every 100 years. Each person fishes as much as they want without regard for other people and all the fish are gone in only 80 years. The tragedy?

No one gets any fish from that lake again. Ever.

Game theory involves predicting behavior of multiple parties and the potential results. Sumaila works out the actions each party could take, and describes the consequences of each scenario.

Sumaila’s research allows governments, fisheries and NGOs to make better decisions and work together. They can see the bigger picture.

When information is not available, Sumaila contributes to its development with work such as building databases for Mediterranean countries. Since fish are not governed by country borders, the work is interdisciplinary and requires thinking outside the box of pure economics.

In a marine resource with two types of fish, cod and capelin, which should be fished?

“Cod is more valuable than capelin,” said Sumaila. “It fetches a better price on the market.”

It is also important to know that cod are predators of capelin — which seasons were productive for fishing in the Barents Sea — and the fishes’ maturity cycles and the economic returns. Sumaila’s 1997 research paper, “Strategic Dynamic Interaction: The Case of Barents Sea Fisheries,” advised Barents Sea fisheries that it was better to reduce the level of capelin harvesting since the fish was prey to cod. The result? The community could reap more economic benefits. Furthermore, it would be more sustainable for fish populations.

What are obstacles to the implementation of sustainable recommendations?

“One of the biggest problems is balancing the flow of benefits through time,” said Sumaila.

When overuse of a resource is happening, the science often shows that when fishing is scaled back, populations of fish will restore to sustainable levels.

“However, the concern [in the community] is always ‘what about now?’” said Sumaila. Changes are difficult because they involve sacrifice and it’s tough to know how much is enough. Will it be worth it?

This problem is one that is pervasive in sustainability efforts — balancing the immediate versus the future.

A complete economic analysis of this very conflict thus weighs the economic sacrifices of the short-term against the long-term benefits. Sumaila’s work on fishing-specific intergenerational discount rates is instrumental to providing a projection of the consequences of actions taken — or not taken — over time.

What does this mean for you?

A useful tool Sumaila recommended is SeafoodWatch, created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. It’s available on the Google Play store and Apple store. SeafoodWatch helps consumers and businesses choose seafood which is harvested and farmed with the big picture in mind.

Since science cannot achieve results alone, and true sustainability can only exist with the cooperation of governments, Sumaila also sincerely reminds us to consider the environment when participating in political elections.

More recently, Sumaila has been working on the research initiative, OceanCanada. The program aims to bring together solutions for Canada’s Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific coastal-ocean, and see where we are likely to be in the future in terms of resources, nature and communities.