February 15, 2017

One fish, two fish, one fish—wait, where did all the fish go?

Noelle Olsen

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.

Caption: On the left you can see the original Fish Banks board with ships seen throughout all three fishing areas. On the right, you can see the online simulation version of the fishing areas. (Sources: left and right)

On the left you can see the original Fish Banks board with ships seen throughout all three fishing areas. On the right, you can see the online simulation version of the fishing areas. (Sources: left and right)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Caption: Team “Winning Ticket” consisted of Dr. Paolisso, ?, and Suzi (from left to right). Winning Ticket ended up with 22 ships and earned the second highest amount of assets at the close of the ten years. Photo by Vanessa Vargas.

Team “Winning Ticket” consisted of Dr. Paolisso, Kelly, and Suzi (from left to right). Winning Ticket ended up with 22 ships and earned the second highest amount of assets at the close of the ten years. Photo by Vanessa Vargas.

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.

Caption: Dr. Hubacek (unsuccessfully) trying to convince Team 1 to purchase more ships. Team 1 exhibited the conservative strategy #2. Photo by Vanessa Vargas.

Dr. Hubacek (unsuccessfully) trying to convince Team 1 to purchase more ships. Team 1 exhibited the conservative strategy #2. Photo by Vanessa Vargas.

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:

Conclusions reached after the game.

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:

A cartoon connecting the idea of Tragedy of the Commons with overfishing. (Source: here)

A cartoon connecting the idea of Tragedy of the Commons with overfishing. (Source: here)


Economics Resources:

Fisheries Resources:


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About the author
This blog was produced by graduate students in the Coupled Human and Natural Systems course, part of the Marine, Environmental and Estuarine Science (MEES) program at the University System of Maryland. Bill Dennison, Klaus Hubacek, Michael Paolisso, and Christina Prell are teaching the course as a 'flipped' classroom so that classtime is spent discussing lectures and readings which are summarized in this blog series.
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Filed under: Science Communication,Applying Science,Learning Science — Tags: , , , — MEES Coupled Human and Natural Systems Student @ 11:00 am


  1. “The grossly simplified answer is through effective communication” Yes, I agree! We could have had a completely different game if teams had been encouraged to communicate and strategize with each other, rather than compete for maximum profit. Having short-term, financially-driven goals in business is a fact of life, but businesses should also think about long-term effects of their actions. In the world of fisheries, often that does not happen unless there is legislation requiring more conservative and sustainable business plans. An important job for scientists is to inform policy makers so that effective restrictions may be put in place for the long-term benefit of common resources.

    Comment by Suzanne Spitzer — February 15, 2017 @ 11:17 am

  2. Great blog Noelle, I really enjoyed the animations!! I agree with your fisheries point of view. As you mentioned some aspects of the game are non realistic for such a complex action as fishing. The game did not include the carrying capacity of the species (k), and pressure from the big companies to the smaller fleets like in image 3. I agree with previous comments about communication between different stakeholders, it is necessary to avoid a collapse in a fisheries and the recovery of a stock is a reality for some species.

    Comment by W.Cruz — February 15, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

  3. Indeed, the game could have been very different if communication among groups had been encouraged. Would that necessarily have led to cooperation and conservation of common resources? That is our hope (as scientists, and conscientious human beings who value sustainability). However, as Noelle points out in her reflection, the answer is not so simple. I my recent reading of Edward O. Wilson’s book Biophilia, I came across a passage that seems quite relevant to our discussion of social dilemmas, common resources, and the ‘conservation ethic.’ “Values are time-dependent, making them all the more difficult to carve in stone.” – Wilson says. “We want health, security, freedom, and pleasure for ourselves and our families. For distant generations we wish the same but not at any great personal cost. The difficulty created for the conservation ethic is that natural selection has programmed people to think mostly in physiological time. […] The forests may all be cut, radiation slowly rise, and the winters grow steadily colder, but if the effects are unlikely to become decisive for a few generations, very few people will be stirred to revolt. Ecological and evolutionary time, spanning centuries and millennia, can be conceived in an intellectual mode but has no immediate emotional impact.” The key point therefore, it seems, is that “Only through an unusual amount of education and reflective thought do people come to respond emotionally to far-off events and hence place a high premium on posterity.” (Wilson, E. O. Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.)

    Comment by V Leitold — February 15, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

  4. Good job Noelle! This was interesting to read while being very informative at the same time. I agree with my classmates that lack of communication, whether it was between fisheries or management, was probably the most unrealistic part of this game. I wonder in what manner this communication takes place, and whether excessive communication may actually hinder a fishery’s profit. Is there a way to effectively mitigate a fisherman’s need for immediate profit with the need for long term sustainability without creating animosity between fishermen and management?

    Comment by Rebecca Wenker — February 15, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

  5. Hi, I’m a MEES PhD student in the Fisheries Science area (I’ve actually been working in fisheries science for the last decade). Games are a fantastic heuristic tool for testing specific human dimensions of complex processes. The “lack of communication” described by some of the commenters is actually pretty realistic and unfortunately very common in fisheries management. Perspectives and norms vary widely between industry that rely on the resource, scientists studying the resource, and managers trying to sustain the resource. There are many novel ways to engage members of the fishery in the management process, one of which is lead by Dr. Elizabeth North at Horn Point Lab called OysterFutures – I’m helping with the project as part of my research. https://oysterfutures.wordpress.com/

    Comment by Chris Hayes — February 15, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

  6. I am also not sure if there would have been a significantly different outcome if the groups had been encouraged to speak to each other more. Most groups could probably predict the outcome of the game – that there would be a crash – but had different strategies for maximizing profits. During the game groups would often speak quietly and try not to let others hear where they were sending their ships, since they didn’t want to give other teams any advantage. This seemed realistic that fisherman would want to reduce competition at the different sites, and would not openly communicate their strategies.

    For Rebecca’s comment, I was wondering what excessive communication would really be. Communication between everyone and engagement with each other in management and individual’s decisions seems like it would have mostly benefits for people in the long run, and it would take great extremes for there to be downsides to communication.

    I also thought Veronika’s comment was very interesting about how invested people are in outcomes depending on how far out in time they are. I was wondering if fisheries management and dilemmas related to that might be easier to get people invested in, since fisheries stock crashes can happen within a lifetime and will affect the next generation, while issues like climate change are more difficult, since it will effect generations much further down the line.

    Comment by Killian F — February 15, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

  7. This is a great summary of the class session, Noelle!I really like the cartoon that you ended on. This is such a important topic because many if not all of our fisheries are eventually exploited and abused. However, after reading for the coming week’s discussion I found it surprising and interesting that the lobster fishery in Maine is so well managed and (seemingly) well sustained. One aspect that comes into play with managing that fishery that is was not a factor in our game is local norms and pressures. The fishing ports in Maine are mainly controlled by tight knit groups of people, and outsiders are not easily let into the harbors to fish. If ‘rules’ and social norms are broken, such as fishing in close proximity to another fisherman, locals will make it much harder for you to fish and be a member of the fishery. We didn’t have these ‘social’ controls in our game because no groups knew where other groups placed their ships or collected fish.
    Just an interesting thought!
    Very great blog!

    Comment by Rachel E — February 15, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

  8. Another component of this game that I think would have been interesting to experience is if there was any discussion between the teams. Although more seen in oligopolies, there can be discussion and potential collusion between the different players to try and manage the threat of over-fishing together. In this simulation, none of the teams worked outside of their own group. It brings to question the validity of the Tragedy of the Commons if only the people could and would work together instead.

    Comment by Natalie Yee — February 16, 2017 @ 9:24 am

  9. I, like another one of our classmates, also really loved the statement you made about “the grossly simplified answer” and the graphics you used here. It was clear after having played the game that there were other ways that this game could have been approached in terms of strategy that would have been more beneficial and sustainable for all. What some don’t realize is that it takes a lot of communication and an integrated approach with transdisciplinary thinking to begin to manage our shared resources better. The statement was also interesting because some people make statements like “well if we just do this” or “all we need to do is communicate better” as if remedying the problem is as simple as they make it sounds. Yes, communication is a good start but fixing resource issues is a process, just like combating many other environmental problems. I also thought it was interesting that two of the teams were composed of mostly of students who are specializing in fisheries science in the MEES program. This gave me more insight into why those teams may have chose the strategy they did when playing the game. It speaks to how our epistemologies play into our decision making.

    Comment by Krystal Yhap — February 16, 2017 @ 10:31 am

  10. Some new comparative work on fisheries (discussed in PNAS, http://www.pnas.org/content/114/7/1442.full) shows that in China, fish catch is continuing to increase despite evidence that there is overfishing. There are two competing hypotheses for this phenomenon – one explained in line with the patterns we saw in class (increasing effort), however the other suggests that selective fishing of predators results in abundant prey and therefore highly productive fisheries especially where there is a cultural preference for smaller fish. It is also common eg. in some Caribbean countries to prefer smaller fish in order to be able to put “a head and a tail” on each plate. I wonder if it would be possible to include these cultural and market preferences into a version of FIshBanks in order to explore those cross-cultural or regional differences.

    Comment by Kelly Hondula — February 16, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

  11. Rachel and Natalie mention ways that Hardin’s tragedy of the commons might be avoided or mitigated, specifically means by which users can be excluded or their extraction of the resource limited by social norms leading to responsibilities associated with use of the common resource. I think we’ll be discussing this further in this week’s class…

    I wanted to elaborate on my comment during class. While the rules of the game could be changed if individual fishing enterprises had goals other than profit maximization, this seems unlikely to happen voluntarily without changes to the system. This is where it seems like state (or international) regulation intervenes – not by convincing people to adopt goals other than profit maximization itself, but by only allowing profit maximization within other parameters. I think changing the goals of individual fishing agents from profit maximization to something else (like sustained yield, optimization of other ecosystem services, etc.) would require more fundamental changes to the social-ecological system underpinning fishing itself – the value of the fish, or the value of the fishing labor, or the fishing capital, or the ecosystem services would have to be realized and exchanged differently. Right now the only value realized from fish is their price as a commodity fueled by consumer demand, and the only way to get those fish (and their value) is to pay someone who buys the fish from the people who harvest them, with prices at each step sufficient to cover capital and labor costs. Within this system a fisher has no choice but to maximize profit, even if within bounds of regulation. If the fish were valued differently (e.g. in part by contribution to ecosystem services instead of as commodities), or if fishing (and the provision of fish goods) was a public service instead of a private enterprise, or if the capital required to manage fisheries were provided by actors without a profit motive (non-profit organizations or the state), these individual fisher goals could change. There might still be a drive to maximize personal income, but not profit. Similarly if the enterprise could not generate profits attractive enough (by means of taxation or price controls) to private investors but could be capitalized sufficiently to provide incomes, management priorities and fishing decisions might change. This is probably not very sensible, as I don’t know anything about fisheries, but in general I think it can be interesting to allow ourselves to think about the fundamentals of social-ecological systems without assumptions, even if only as an intellectual exercise to understand what gives rise to the phenomena we observe.

    Comment by Alec Armstrong — February 16, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

  12. Rachel mentioned the lobster fishery in Maine that has remained sustainable. I believe a large reason for this is because the lobster are all harvested mostly within US territorial waters, and the fishermen are all from local harbors in the state of Maine. This makes for somewhat easy self regulation of the fishery between stakeholders. The fishbanks game can be thought of as a migratory fish fishery, where the fish spend most of there lives in international waters in the deep sea. This makes it a lot harder to create agreeable rules that can be enforced across nations and cultures.

    I agree with Alec, that we must look at other ways to manage natural resources that do not strictly value the exploitation of the resource itself, or even remove that incentive entirely. In fisheries, this would encourage fishers to act differently. Whether we enforce strict regulations informed by the biophysical limits of the system, or change the economics of the situation, either choice requires the cooperation and communication between various stakeholders which will all play by different set of rules and potentially different laws. This weeks class, as Alec mentions, will be centered on that.

    Comment by David Miles — February 16, 2017 @ 1:42 pm

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