Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How is the sale of shark fins as ‘incidental catch’ similar to cattle grazing on common grounds?

Guest Blog
by Dr. Robin Taylor

The debate between opposing parties to the suggestion that Fiji should have a total ban on the catch and sale of sharks (or just parts of sharks such as their fins), took on a different angle whereby the fishing industry consortium (the minority but powerful lobby group in the room) argued that they were not interested in catching sharks and totally accepted that sharks needed to be protected. In other words the fishing consortium seemed to be ‘on side’, consultative and reasonable to the larger group of stakeholders who were arguing for a total ban on shark fishing and/or the sale of any shark products. The fishing lobby’s suggestion was for Fiji to set up sanctuaries particularly around the coastal areas throughout Fiji waters. Their argument was that the majority of the species were found around coasts and coral reefs associated with the coasts, and that they were not concerned with catching sharks anyway (which were, according to them, few) and that they released any live sharks that they accidentally caught on their long lines.

Why did and should the conservation group be so adamantly against this apparently reasonable gesture by the fishing lobby group? The answer lies in that it creates loopholes and loopholes are always exploited by people to their own gains. Is this true however? Psychologists, economists, mathematicians and biologists have answered this question and it started with an unusual consideration of owners of cattle who wanted to graze their livestock on common land.

Garrett Hardin revived a report that was first written up in 1833 by an amateur mathematician who outlined a scenario which has subsequently been titled the “Tragedy of the Commons”. A ‘Common’ was a common piece of ground used for agricultural or pastoral activities. Rather than being owned by someone or a group (such as a family), the Common was for everyone to use. A Common was still regulated because it was realised that if everyone wantonly used up the resources of the Common, then it would cease to be of any value. An agreement between all the cattle owners could prevent this problem if everyone agrees to only have a set number of cattle (say five each). Of course not every cow is the same so some cows might eat a bit more than another cow. For this reason the actual number of cows per grazer should be slightly less than the maximum permitted to account for this discrepancy – to act as a buffer as it were. If everyone was to have more than this (say six), the results would be that the buffer would be used up and the Common would be overgrazed – the result would be overgrazing and everyone loses. Such Commons really do exist and for the many, the system works well.

However, on some Commons people might have a tendency to ‘sneak’ a sixth cattle onto the Common. If one or two cattle owners do this, it probably won’t affect the Common too much because of the built in buffer. They get ‘free’ grazing for an additional head of cattle. However, sharp sighted peers would think “well why should I ‘lose out’ to others? - I’ll sneak a sixth cattle onto the common too!”. Of course what happens in the end is that everyone ends up putting more than their allocated five cattle per owner, and the result is that the buffer is exceeded the Common would be overgrazed and then no cattle can use the Common at all – everyone loses medium to long term including the ‘cheats’. This is the ‘tragedy’ of the situation. The ‘buffer’ is a loophole that can be exploited.

This has been experimentally researched in a ‘game’ that can be played called the ‘Prisoners Dilemma’. The science behind this is both psychology and mathematics in a discipline called ‘Game Theory’. If you’ve seen the film ‘Beautiful Mind’ with Russell Crowe as the mathematical genius John Nash, then this is essentially ‘Game Theory’. Research participants ‘play’ a theoretical game in pairs. The rules of the game are that: they may gain a short term individually large reward if they ‘cheat’ on their playing partner; they lose if they are cheated on (or they don’t gain as much); or they and their partner gain a small amount but over the medium to long term this adds up to be far larger overall; and finally they both lose a far larger amount if both partners try to cheat on each other. These are not unlike the conditions described in the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.

So what actually happens in this research? It depends on a number of factors, such as the size of a short term reward, the apparent loss if others ‘cheat’ the system (related to the size of the short term reward), as well as the size of penalty to both parties if they both try to cheat on each other, and the size of the mutual gain to work cooperatively as well as the time frame in which the mutually cooperative work is rewarded. It should be mentioned that many variations to this game have been played including the more realistic versions where there are more than two players and where the game can be played more than once, i.e. many fishing boats, or more than one fishing fleet and each time the fishing boat goes out, it is the equivalent of playing a game.

The proposal to have a set of shark sanctuaries in Fiji waters is almost impossible to police (when are you actually ‘in’ the shark sanctuary and when are you ‘out’?) with today’s technologies and limited government resources. The current system is also open to abuse in terms of defining when a shark is currently ‘dead’ on the line without qualified independent observers on board the fishing fleets. The proposal to set up a set of partial sanctuaries for sharks in Fiji waters, and the allowance of accidental or ‘by-catch’ sharks by fishermen outside of these sanctuaries, is a situation that is a classic ‘Prisoners Dilemma’ game.

1. The pressure to ‘cheat’ is enormous with the current value of a shark fin being about six times the price per kilogram of tuna.

2. The penalty of not cheating is relatively large when some fishing fleets are going out to fish and coming back with a negligible catch. They still have to pay wages, and fleet operating costs. Those costs can be recouped (even partially) if ‘by-catch’ sharks (actually their fins) are sold.

3. The penalty for over fishing of sharks because almost everyone ‘cheats’, is the collapse of the eco-system including the tuna populations resulting in the collapse of any associated tuna industry.

4. The time frame for such a penalty is counted in years, not days, weeks or even months. If the short term windfall from cheating is measured in years, this is enough for individuals (fleet operator owners) to get very rich before the whole system collapses.

The result will be that fishermen will definitely cheat. Not all, but as time goes on, more and more will fisherman will cheat until the eco-system collapses. The cheating will be something along the lines of a very loose interpretation of when a fishing boat, or even a fishing line is within the sanctuary waters; and a very liberal interpretation of when a shark is considered ‘dead’ on the line. Indeed, those that don’t ‘cheat’ will go out of business before the whole industry collapses, and it’s always hard to maintain ethics when food is not coming onto the table!

Could this really happen, as surely if we know the science of the dangers of overfishing the whole industry would not go down this route? Sadly, we have more than enough recent and ongoing examples of fishing industries that have or continue to be overfished and the industry has is in imminent danger of collapsing. So the short answer is yes it can definitely still happen. The most spectacular is probably the North west Atlantic cod by North American fleets and the similar case in the North east Atlantic particularly Scandinavia, Britain and Iceland. The issue therefore is not that the industry is unaware of the problem. The issue is that whilst there is an appreciable gain to be made out of ‘cheating’ before the industry collapses, the temptation and the psychological pressure will overcome any scientific wisdom or logic. This is what the Prisoners Dilemma research has demonstrated and results in yet another ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.

How can this be reversed? After all there are successful ‘Commons’ in real life that do not always end in a tragedy. Again the research is clear on this, the ‘rules’ of the game must be played with different loses and gains for either ‘cheating’ or ‘cooperating’. The potential short term gains might be minimised (unfortunately it is not easy for a country like Fiji to dictate the market price of shark fins); the penalty for ‘cheating’ must be far larger than the short term ‘gain’; the penalty for cheating must be almost immediate (days or weeks, not months or years); the conditions under which behaviour is defined as ‘cheating’ or ‘cooperating’ must be immediately apparent.

• The easiest way to make cheating and cooperating apparent is to have a total ban on all shark fishing throughout all of the Fiji’s waters. A total ban is the only solution that is possible without significant advances in the implementation of reliable and cheap technology that can instantly and always identify when a boat or associated fishing line is in a ‘mini’ defined sanctuary or not within Fiji’s waters.
• Accidental by-catch can be minimised by the use of appropriate materials (‘shark friendly’ hooks) and fishing behaviour (laying out of fishing lines and nets at times when sharks do not hunt). • No shark product to be sold even if the shark is actually dead (some by-catch is inevitable) so there is no temptation to ‘liberally’ interpret when a shark is dead on the line (or not).
• Transgressions of these measures when detected, are always punished as a penalty for cheating.
• Penalties are so severe that it overrides any short term gains by fishing boats or fishing fleets that think they can get away with the ‘cheat’ and associated short term gain.
• Penalties are instantly applied and to everyone, regardless of size, relationship with the government, or nationality.

Critics of such policies might argue that this would penalise ‘honest’ fishing fleets that try to fish responsibly as shark by-catch is inevitable. The answer is that it would not for the following reasons. Firstly the penalty is not applied for catching a shark (accidentally) but for keeping shark products (such as the fins) for sale. Secondly the stated by-catch of sharks by the long line fishing consortium is small (‘We are not interested in catching sharks as tuna is our main industry’) so any loss of income from the sale of accidental by-catch is also correspondingly small. Finally, if sharks are not their intended catch, then using fishing equipment and practices that minimises the shark by-catch actually is better and more effective for the fishing industry.

In summary, whilst the intention of the fishing industry lobby to oppose a total shark sanctuary throughout Fiji’s waters but instead suggest localised sanctuaries, seems reasonable, the well established scientific evidence is that this will not work. The research that has demonstrated this is in the study of a game called the ‘Prisoners Dilemma’. Overfishing in other industries around the world show that this research is valid in the ‘real world’ even when the science and consequences of overfishing is known by all stakeholders. The current solution to avoid a Tragedy of the Commons’ where both the eco-system and consequently the fishing industry collapses, is a total ban on all fishing of sharks and any sale of shark products regardless of whether they are accidentally fished or not.

Further Reading
Axelrod, R. (1984) The evolution of cooperation, Basic Books, New York.
Hardin, G. (1968) The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.
Kollock, P. (1998) Social dilemmas: The anatomy of cooperation. Annual Review of Sociology. 24, 183-214.

Dr. Robin Taylor obtained a BSc in zoology from Dundee University and then a PhD in psychology from Edinburgh university. He lives and works in the Fiji Islands with his wife, two daughters, four dogs and two cats.

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