The limitations of bio-economic modelling

By Lia Ni Aodha,

A recent study published has made a splash across a number of forums with big taglines and equally big promises. At first glance, it seems like this paper may have the answer to current fisheries challenges – a win-win answer for all. However, on closer inspection a number of problems quickly arise. This study conducted by Costello et al (2016) poses the question: What would extensive fishery reform look like?

Using bio-economic models, the authors explore the benefits and trade-offs of alternative fisheries management approaches –  business as usual (BAU), fishing to maximise long-term catch (FMSY), and rights based fisheries management (RBFM). The study estimates future catches, profits, and biomass under each ‘alternative’ policy and, ultimately, argues that RBFM, in the form of individual or communal access rights, can align incentives across profit, food and conservation – with few trade-offs across these dimensions. Essentially, these ‘common-sense reforms’ (?) could rapidly lead to an increase in overall fish abundance while, also increasing food security and profits. They do acknowledge that the effects of reform are likely to be somewhat context specific, while also highlighting that the guise of RBFM to be implemented (co-ops, TURFS, ITQs…) will depend on the social, economic, and ecological objectives within any given context (1).

So there we have it – the solution to the fisheries challenge is in our grasp! Such requires a (somewhat) clear-cut prescription involving the assignment of rights to users, whereby everybody wins – the fish, fishermen, and society in general. Indeed, such assertions have rapidly been making the rounds on various media forums over the past week.

Alas, however, in reality, such is not quite as clear-cut as it would initially seem. Firstly, as stated, the study employed bio-economic modelling. The thing with such models is they use biological and economic parameters and, largely, ignore any social parameters. The authors acknowledge this stating: ‘Other social objectives such as employment, equity, or biodiversity conservation are clearly important…but are not explicitly modelled here’ (1). However, it may be argued (and, indeed, it has) that such has been a core problem of fisheries management and research for most of the past century, and one that has directly manifested in the challenges (both social and ecological) that we see today.

Fisheries management clearly involves people (as opposed to just economic or biological components), and as such, I am not sure if such an aspect can be left out of a model that strives to develop an optimal, alternative resource management strategy. In the age where we are inundated with the rhetoric of sustainability (which, in relation to fisheries policy, is explicitly laid out by the European Commission as inferring such from a social, economic, and ecological perspective) such an approach seems, somewhat, outdated in the development of an acceptable fisheries management regime.

Given the above, perhaps it is unsurprising that the magic bullet that the results of this study have identified, as being the most favourable management strategy is, perhaps, one of the least favourable management strategies from a social perspective.

We know the rationale for rights based fishing, held by many fisheries economists and scientists – poorly regulated access regimes, devoid of clearly defined rights, are the biggest cause of overexploitation of the world’s fish stocks. As such, the creation of property rights can end the ‘inefficiencies’ of fishing and the unsustainable ‘race to fish’. The endowment of such rights will incentivise more sustainable behaviour (as fishermen become the stewards of their own resource), and encourage efficiency – as the least efficient fishermen will be weeded out. Such a line of argument is not new and goes back, at least, as far as the 1950s and Gordon (2). However, the push really took off, perhaps tellingly, in the late 1980s (3). Indeed, today such an approach is advocated by many of our large global institutions.

The thing is, however, these regimes of private property (as with other forms of private property) are instituted in a social, economic, and political context – an environment that involves complex systems of relationships that involve structural power hierarchies. Unfortunately, proponents of such rights, largely, ignore the existence of these (4). As such, it is somewhat unsurprising that real life models of fisheries management indicate that RBFM, almost without fail, regardless of its manifestation, results in the dispossession of many (usually those less powerful) at the benefit of a few.

Property rights by their nature are exclusionary, and the reality of RBFM is a concentration of rights in the hands of powerful (often vertically integrated) companies or individuals, a reduction in fishing vessels in operation and number of people fishing. As with many economic policies the less powerful lose out – that means smaller fishermen, their crews, communities and families. There is no shortage of evidence to support this assertion.

Iceland introduced such a system, and today over fifty percent of the quota is owned by ten companies. Similarly, the institution of a RBFM system in Chile has resulted in ninety percent of the quota being held by four companies (3). The introduction in Denmark in 2005 has culminated in a loss of place based fishing – quota, and thus, boats and livelihoods, diminishing hugely (and even disappearing) in many communities (5). Similar patterns are observed in Namibia, New England, and New Zealand – which, incidentally, this study references optimistically (along with Iceland) stating, in relation to the various guises through which RBFM may be implemented:

Although, these all fall under the umbrella of RBFM, each will bring different benefits in different settings that must be weighed against the cost of reform. Although these costs have not been explicitly modelled here, experiences from countries such as Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia suggest that they are likely to be only a fraction of the potential benefits identified here (1).

The reality in New Zealand (as with Iceland), however, is that smaller scale fishermen have lost out under the system – disadvantaged from the out, and unable to access the credit (as quotas are not considered collateral) required in order to grow their initial paltry allocation into a viable business. Subsequently, this has led to a large-scale buy up by larger companies of much of the tradable quota (6). Interestingly, New Zealand and Iceland also have the highest costs of management per fishing vessel, which says something in relation to the fictional stewardship capacities such rights foster (7).

This is not simply the case with notorious ITQ (Individual Transferable Quota) systems, but also holds true for more community- based systems of rights allocation such as co-ops or TURFs (territorial user rights). Studies have shown that the top down imposition of such can weaken traditional institutions (which fisheries economics so often decides to ignore or pretend doesn’t exist), impact negatively on trust within the community, intensify conflict among users, and may actually lead to conditions whereby the ecosystems resilience is, in fact, threatened rather than secured (8).

As Bromley so nicely puts it the utopian vision of so-called privatisation (that draws on a political ideology that sanctifies the individual as the sole decision maker that can produce optimal outcomes), essentially, amounts to ‘free-gifting’ of permanent endowments of wealth to certain parts of the fisheries sector. Fisheries management is left to the market, and national governments are absolved of any responsibility. However, over-fishing has little (if anything) to do with property rights – given the ample evidence of our ability to protect natural resources (through public ownership – which we seem so quick to want to throw away in relation to our seas), when we choose to (7). The fact of the matter is that the world’s fisheries are in precisely the condition they are in today due to how they have been managed – as opposed to an absence of property rights.

The over-arching goal of fisheries management is (in theory) the sustainable use of fisheries resources (9). However, what we have got instead is a big focus on economic efficiency. Subsequently, the choice of management is portrayed as one between maximised resource rent or, alternatively, some kind of less efficient, but socially favourable policy (7). Stakeholders (and their knowledge) are ignored or side-lined. I had hoped that we were moving away from this kind of focus, but it seems, alas we are not quite there yet – bio-economic models still dominate.

Unfortunately, when studies like this (adopting such an approach), make big headlines advocating a very particular prescription for action – we get an oversimplified message, that fails to acknowledge the complexities of reality. It is this message, however, that is picked up by the media, public, lobbies, and fisheries managers. Evidence is clear in the following caption in direct relation to the article published by Washington Post on the 28/03/16:

To bring about this happy ending, governments must give fishermen a stake in the overall health of their fisheries. One way to accomplish this is to require fishermen to hold rights to catch a certain amount of seafood in a certain fishery, which allows governments to manage the total haul and reduces the frenzied competition to scoop up as much as possible as quickly as possible. Ideally, these “catch shares” could be bought and sold so that rights would end up with those who could fish most efficiently (10).

This has huge implications for public perceptions of fisheries, for fisheries management, and for the livelihoods of fishermen – not large firms that trawl huge nets across the sea and remain far outside the realm of inspection, but relatively small scale fishermen based in communities.

What repercussions does this have for the faith fishermen have in fisheries science? Or for the relationships that we now accept as being crucial to sustainable fisheries management?

The content of this blog does not reflect the official opinion of the SAF21 project or of European Union. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this blog lies entirely with the author(s).
  1. Costello et al (2016) Global Fishery prospects under contrasting management regimes, available at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/03/29/1520420113.full
  2. Gordon, H. S. (1954).The economic theory of a common-property resource: the fishery (pp. 178-203). Palgrave Macmillan UK.
  3. TNI Agrarian Justice Programme, Masifundise, Afrika Kontakt (2014) Global Ocean Grab: A Primer, available at http://worldfishers.org/wp content/uploads/2015/01/The_Global_Ocean_Grab-EN.pdf.
  4. Ratner, B. D., Åsgård, B., & Allison, E. H. (2014). Fishing for justice: Human rights, development, and fisheries sector reform. Global Environmental Change, 27, 120-130.
  5. Høst, Jeppe Engset. (2013) Captains of Finance.
  6. World Forum of Fisher People (2013) A Call for Governments to Stop Supporting the Global Partnership for Oceans (GPO) and Rights-Based Fishing (RBF) Reforms, available at http://worldfishers.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/WFFP-WFF-Call-on-Governments_GPO_200313.pdf.
  7. Bromley, D. W. (2009). Abdicating responsibility: the deceits of fisheries policy. Fisheries, 34(6), 280-290.
  8. Gelcich, S., Edwards-Jones, G., Kaiser, M. J., & Castilla, J. C. (2006). Co-management policy can reduce resilience in traditionally managed marine ecosystems. Ecosystems, 9(6), 951-966.
  9. (2002). A Fishery Manager’s Guidebook – Management Measures and Their Application, Fisheries Technical Paper, 424.
  10. Washington Post (2016) How to Save the World’s Fisheries, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-plan-to-save-the-worlds-fisheries/2016/03/28/8ad38528-f52b-11e5-a3ce-f06b5ba21f33_story.html
2018-05-02T18:06:49+00:00April 5th, 2016|

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