Last week for class, we traveled near and far (UMES students) to the new UMCES office in Annapolis. Dr. Hubacek gave us an interactive, crash-course lesson in natural resource management and economics by playing the game, Fish Banks. Fish banks originated from the minds of scientists at the MIT Sloan School of Management and centers around environmental sustainability and systems thinking – perfect for our coupled natural and human systems course. Originally a board game, the game has been modified to be an “interactive, scalable web-based version” that can easily be used as a teaching tool. To play the game, the class was split into four teams of three and each given the role of a fishing company. Initially, each team was given $1,200 and fishing fleet of six ships, and we were given some background data for the system (summarized here). At the beginning of each fishing season, each team had to decide where they wanted to send their ships (the harbor, the coast, or the deep sea), order new ships to be made, and hope for good weather.
Although the intended goal of the game was to maximize profits and have the highest amount of assets at the end of the time period, not everyone had the same strategy to achieve this goal. There were two main strategies which dominated our class, splitting our class down the middle:
- Full-steam ahead: building up your ship’s fleet by purchasing new boats and/or actively participating in auctions. The two teams with this strategy ended up with 22 and 19 ships. Only one student had previously played Fish Banks and was on one of these two teams.
- Dipping your toes in the water: deciding not to expand your ship fleet more than the initial six ships. Interestingly, the two teams with this strategy were ones with students specializing in fisheries science in the MEES program.
Despite the fact that both teams had different strategies, we were all able to pick up on the idea that the typically high-profiting deep sea waters had become depleted, increasing the fishing intensity in the coastal waters. We only had enough time to complete ten rounds—ten Fish Bank years—before class ended. Dr. Hubacek informed us that this was the first time he’s played where the fishery didn’t totally collapse (although a few more rounds may have led to the collapse). If the fishery had, in fact, collapsed, the conservative strategy would’ve come out on top as more profitable due to the costs of keeping ships afloat. How did that happen? Firstly, we had a small classroom with only four teams. Secondly, we had two teams exhibiting strategy #2. Thus, the fish were not being depleted as quickly as previously seen.
After the close of the fishing period, the class began discussing which elements of Fish Bank were realistic and which were oversimplified or unrealistic. For starters, one of my classmates, Alec, brought up a good point about a fishing company’s goals—the overall goal is not necessarily to be the most profitable fishing company. Measuring success and ability to maximize profits will be depend on a variety of factors: scale of company, type of species, how many fisheries you’re involved in, location, how many employers you have, initial start-up fees (inherited from family or starting fresh), type of and amount of gear and technology—just to name a few. I summarized some of the conclusions here:
Overall, Fish Banks was a great resource to introduce our class into the economics and resource management aspect of our coupled human and natural course. Some of the main economic concepts that we touched on are the Tragedy of the Commons and the free rider problem. In short, there is a limited amount of natural resources (fish) which cannot compete with unlimited needs or wants of the consumers (or fishing companies).
In Fish Banks, the free rider problem occurs because all fishing teams were fishing to maximize their profits, disregarding how this will affect the environment and future populations of fish (although the strategy #2 teams may argue that their conservative ship fleets can be seen as more sustainable). Fishery collapse is a harsh reality of mis- or unmanaged fishing populations. If you’re from the Northeast, you may have heard about the collapse of the Atlantic Cody fishery—a highly politicized case in fisheries management (watch a great video about Atlantic Cod here). So, how do we combat and overcome overfishing? The grossly simplified answer is through effective communication and natural resource management; however, if you look at the problem of overfishing through the lens of a telecoupled system, the answer may require trans- and inter- disciplinary actions. I hope to work in fisheries management when I graduate, so perhaps I’ll have a better answer for you in ten years or so. For now, I will leave you with the following cartoon:
- Anderies, J.H. & M.A. Janssen. 2016. Sustaining the Commons. Center for Behavior, Institutions, and the Environment Arizona State University. Tempe, AZ. Available: https://sustainingthecommons.asu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Sustaining-the-Commons-v2.0.pdf [pdf]
- Remoundou, K. et al. 2009. Valuation of natural marine ecosystems: an economic perspective. Environmental Science Policy 12: 1040-1051. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2009.06.006
- Fujita, R. et al. 2012. Ecomarkets for conservation and sustainable development in the coastal zone. Biological Reviews 88: 272-286. Available: https://www.edf.org/sites/default/files/Ecomarkets-for-conservation-and-sustainable-development.pdf
- For easy-to-read figures and facts, check out NOAA’s Fishwatch U.S. Seafood Facts
- If you’re interested in a non-scientific approach to learning about fisheries, I recommend two books by Paul Greenberg—Four Fish and American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood.
- Comprehensive look at the future of our global fisheries by the World Ocean Review part 2: The future of Fish-The Fisheries of the Future Available: http://worldoceanreview.com/wp-content/downloads/wor2/WOR2_english.pdf