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Big Thinking for Big Change

November 1, 2011

On Saturday, I attended the TEDx Mid-Atlantic event. There were some powerful presenters, including Duncan Watts, Reggie Watts, and Vint Cerf.  I was also very happy to see my former classmate, Erica Frenkel, making an excellent presentation and showing a bright future in global public health.

I found the event inspiring and, as I was told, an experience that would generate a few ideas of my own.  Why?  For me, TED is about listening to courageous people who have taken simple, smart ideas and scaled them to something that shapes the world.  What isn’t inspiring about that?  And so many ideas from so many fields can really help you ‘cross-pollinate’.

After the event, I thought I would be true to the spirit of TED and write my top 3 big ideas for big change in the field of marine affairs.  In other words, here’s what I would do if I had the funding.

1. Global Fisheries Compliance Research Project.  We need a global compliance research project to understand what we might consider “normal” for compliance in fisheries, why fishermen behave and misbehave (economic incentives? Poor management legitimacy? moral deviance?), and how we can best catch illegal fishermen and dissuade fishermen from illegal fishing in the future.  The project would be international and run a minimum of 5 years, during which time researchers would conduct survey and interview work to understand the phenomenon in various fisheries around the world.

Why?  Well, we know that we have a global crisis – illegal fishing is rampant and widespread.  Agnew et al. found that as many as 1 in 5 fish are taken illegally around the world.  Sumaila et al. found a problem of similar, concerning scope.  And King et al. suggests that even our best estimates may be quite conservative for fisheries even in the developed world. But while we know enough to say there is a problem, we are very far from understanding what the solution(s) will be.  In fact, little work has been to understand why so many fishermen have decided to break the rules.

2. RFMO Cost-Benefit and Equity Analysis.  We need to perform cost-benefit analyses for all regional fishery management organizations and subsequently see whether or not the operating costs of each RFMO (i.e. administration, monitoring, and enforcement) are proportionally distributed across member states.  I would budget two years and employ a team of economists to do the work.  It would take at least this long to collect the data and find reasonable ways to standardize for the value of monitoring and enforcement contributions across member states.   I suspect the analysis would show that total RFMO operating costs are but a small percentage of the total RFMO profits and show that member States (or their fleets) should pony up more money to better manage the fisheries.  I’d also be very interested to see whether there are any countries free-riding, that is, catching a fair amount of fish but not paying much for the management of the stock(s).

Why?  I believe the greatest leverage for reforming RFMOs will be found when we start analyzing RFMOs as businesses.  That is, what is the return on investment for each fishery under the RFMO?  How are profits distributed across ‘equity’ partners?  How much money is reinvested and how is the burden of reinvestment shared by each ‘equity’ partner?  And is the business ‘healthy’?   What’s more, up until now, allocation of stocks across the RFMOs been based on some black box calculation of historical catches, fairness, and the presence of highly migratory species in certain countries national waters.  This would add a new helpful criterion: being a responsible steward.

3. Catch and Trade Gap Analysis.  We need to better spotlight the deficiencies in fisheries catch and trade databases.  The analysis might take 6 months and would evaluate the accuracy of the FAO marine capture production database through interviews with experts, estimates for discards, known non-reporting flag states by region, and discrepancies discovered as countries have improved their reporting.  Catches would be compared with reported exports and imports to reveal, as in the case of bluefin tuna, that exports far exceed allowable catches. And trade databases would be analyzed alongside expert information to reveal how much we can really trust the information in the trade database, such as importing country and reported values.

Why?  Most experts agree that catch and trade reporting is quite poor, but without the right analysis to point out the biggest problems, we are limited in how much we can push for improved reporting.  As an example, FAO databases reveal that the Americas exported far more Greenland halibut than it caught and imported in 2007.  This research project would help us watch dog fishing countries and target reform efforts.

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