The Natural Resources Podcast

Fishy Business | Rashid Sumaila

May 24, 2020 Highgrade Media Season 1 Episode 3
The Natural Resources Podcast
Fishy Business | Rashid Sumaila
Chapters
The Natural Resources Podcast
Fishy Business | Rashid Sumaila
May 24, 2020 Season 1 Episode 3
Highgrade Media

Our seas are under pressure. Overfishing, acidity, pollution are decimating fish stocks. We all feel it is bad - but how bad is it really?

In this episode of The Natural Resources Podcast we talk to Rashid Sumaila, one of the world’s leading researchers on oceans and fisheries, currently Professor at UBC Fisheries Centre in Canada and winner of the Volvo Environment Prize in 2017. As an economist, he has focussed on the big question of fishing sustainability.

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Highgrade is a not-for-profit media company that produces interviews and documentaries that identify, capture and disseminate analysis and insights in the field of natural resources and social progress.

Our mission is to provide open and free access to specialist knowledge and to disseminate good practice and innovation in this field. See www.highgrade.media for our portfolio of published material.

With support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, through BGR, and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Follow us on social media for daily insights and behind the scenes moments

-> Twitter
-> LinkedIn
-> Facebook

Show Notes Transcript

Our seas are under pressure. Overfishing, acidity, pollution are decimating fish stocks. We all feel it is bad - but how bad is it really?

In this episode of The Natural Resources Podcast we talk to Rashid Sumaila, one of the world’s leading researchers on oceans and fisheries, currently Professor at UBC Fisheries Centre in Canada and winner of the Volvo Environment Prize in 2017. As an economist, he has focussed on the big question of fishing sustainability.

***

Highgrade is a not-for-profit media company that produces interviews and documentaries that identify, capture and disseminate analysis and insights in the field of natural resources and social progress.

Our mission is to provide open and free access to specialist knowledge and to disseminate good practice and innovation in this field. See www.highgrade.media for our portfolio of published material.

With support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, through BGR, and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Follow us on social media for daily insights and behind the scenes moments

-> Twitter
-> LinkedIn
-> Facebook


Åsa Borssén:
Few things have inspired generations of poets like the ocean has. The sea and its creatures have instigated mythologies and popular songs and epic poems from time immemorial. It's difficult to imagine humankind without the ocean. And that is, of course, a romantic oversimplification in itself. Without seas, there would be no life. My name is Åsa Borssén and this is the Highgrade podcast.

JINGLE

Åsa Borssén:
Welcome to Highgrade. Today, we deep dive into the ocean to look at the state of our seas and fish. And I will be diving in with the Rashid Sumaila, one of the world's leading researchers on oceans and fisheries. Currently professor at UBC Fisheries Center in Canada. Like me and most people I know, he loves the sea. But as an economist, he has focused on the big question of fishing sustainability. We all feel it is pretty bad, but how bad is it, really? Rashid, welcome to this Highgrade podcast.

Rashid Sumaila:
Thank you very much

Åsa Borssén:
It's a pleasure to have you with me. And you have dedicated your life to studying the sea and the fish. And as a professor, you're involved in teaching, of course, and research. But you also do communications, spreading the word like with this podcast. What do you say? Are people becoming more aware of what is going on with our oceans?

Rashid Sumaila:
And the answer to that question is absolutely yes. I mean, when I started about two decades ago, hardly very little in the news about the ocean, about fish, about how important it is to us. But these days, the ocean is all over the place because of the works of many journalists, scientists, leaders around the world. Ordinary people are really talking more about the oceans. So, yes, that has improved.

Åsa Borssén:
As a kid, I spent my summers in my family's summer house in an old fishing village. And we used to lay nets. And it was really the most magical experience when my dad woke me up at five a.m. and we went out on the completely still and blank ocean to empty the nets. And then we spent hours taking care of the fish. And today, while I wouldn't do it because I'm vegan today, but also there's no more fish. The nets are empty. And this is just in a 20-year period. Fish stocks are declining. And some say at an alarming pace. How bad is the situation, would you say?

Rashid Sumaila:
Oh, this is really, really bad. I mean, just like you, I remember when I was growing up, I mean this is in West Africa, you know, the coastal people, the kind of fish they catch, the size quality, the variety - it is all shrunk. I mean, people would go out and within half a day, they come up with their boats filled with fish that would serve the family and the community for a week. Now they'll go for a week and they never get anything near that quantity and quality. So, this is happening around the world. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the big formal institutional body that looks at this, they estimate that we have overfished up to a third of fish stocks in the ocean. But actually…

Åsa Borssén:
Wow.

Rashid Sumaila:
You see, you say wow, but actually, there are scientists like our group here, our estimates are that the declines are much, much bigger than they say. And also, you need to go into the types of fish that are overfished. There are estimates of us taking all the big tunas or the billfishes. So, this is a controversial number, but I think it actually goes close to the reality. They estimate that about 90 percent of big pelagic tuna like billfishes have gone. 90 percent are gone. So, if you think of the Mediterranean in Europe there are species that have declined by 87 percent, by 93 percent, so there is a dynamic and natural dynamic that keeps the whole system going. And if you start truncating the big large fish, you are actually taking down the system. So, this is a big problem. Keeping many of us awake at night.

Åsa Borssén:
People tend to blame overfishing, but this is the natural result from overconsumption. Are we eating too much fish?

Rashid Sumaila:
Yeah, the answer is yes, because these people fish, catch fish because there is a market for them by and large. People want to consume them. So, yes. And this connects to the whole global issue we have for the environment as a whole. The fact that we are growing like crazy. I mean, projections of nine to 10 billion people in a few decades. So, there are more mouths to feed. But not only that, parts of the world are getting richer. So, consumption per capita is increasing. And what you want to fish is increasing. If you take China, for example, China, they eat a lot of freshwater fish, agriculture fish that are actually vegetarian fish, for example. We are talking about carp. It's like tilapia that you can grow on anything. Now, when you get richer, like they are getting richer in China, people are moving away from these kinds of fish and they want to eat the salmon. They want to eat the tuna. And these are flesh eating species. Even if you find them, you have to feed them with many more tons of another type of fish like actually like sardines. So, so you are not even saving them a lot of meat. You have to take more and feed into this big flesh-eating fish to create them. You see, so there's all these dynamic, right. That makes this… Yeah, we are overconsuming. So, the question is, what can we do? Right. You two can be done at the personal level, at community level, at country level, globally. We can do all sorts of things.

For example, I gave a presentation in New York, over 10 years ago actually. And the title of my talk was, “Who’s Fish are you eating – yours or your granddaughters?”. That was the title. I mean, this had a powerful effect in the room, but also on me, because I think I've cut down my fish intake by more than half after that. Ask yourself questions, interrogate yourself. And then slowly, more and more, I'm taking vegetables. And it's good for me, actually, the more I eat vegetarian stuff, the lighter I feel, the more agile I feel. And so that’s attractive as you get older. So, there are things you can do at the individual level. At the larger societal level, we can do a lot of amazing stuff to help some people because a lot of this is actually taste that we developed. Right. It's not like we are born to eat a lot of fish. You can always adjust. And you are probably the best example of this, right? I mean, so now you're a vegan, as I understand it. So, there's evolution. So, states and societies can help people to deal with the population problem, to deal with the overconsumption problem, which actually plays out right here, right now in terms of better health.

So, indeed, there are ways we can do this at all different levels. We just have to get going right away, right now because time is running out.

Åsa Borssén:
And you still eat some fish, you say. So, how do you choose which fish you eat and which ones you don't, which ones you step away from?

Rashid Sumaila:
Fantastic. So, this is a good question. And it's a difficult one for most people. At least, I am in the fish business and this research and science. So, I know that we have a lot more anchovies and sardines than we have tunas and the likes. And so, when I eat sushi, I go for the vegetarian types, and we have California roles and they are delicious, with avocado and it is beautiful. So, I avoid all the big, large predatory fish because they play a big function, they are fewer and they produce less. But if you can eat, the more you can eat, things like anchovy, and actually, they are also very delicious if you try. That is just is just our mentality, right.

You have all those ocean wise certificates. They have their problems, you know, where you have marks on the fish, but there is mislabeling and all that. So, the thing is there is no solution that is perfect, so we have to have a basket of ways of dealing with this in order to have effect.

Åsa Borssén:
It's not easy being a consumer these days.

Rashid Sumaila:
It is difficult. And the difficulty stems from the fact that most of our governments cannot just do their job right. Because really, that's why we have governments: there are terms, that you don't let them into the market. And so that's why we have that, because an individual is really tough for you. How am I supposed to believe and not believe a label on the fish?

Åsa Borssén:
Yeah. But if you look at this from as an economist and not as a consumer. demand or supply, which one would you say is easier to curb?

Rashid Sumaila:
Yeah. Difficult. Yeah. You see supply…I think supply is easier. And this is not the careful scientific analysis. And the reason I say this is that actually you can check what we take out, I think, more than what we consume. There are so many consumers, billions of people, and there are much fewer fishers, really, of any substance. If you can just for a moment, ignore the small artisanal and subsistence fishers, right. Even if you take them on, they are far less so this easier. So, it’s easier, I think, to monitor control, especially with technology these days. So, we could do that. But consumption being difficult, actually, then also turns around and makes controlling the supply difficult. Because if there is a market for fish, I think some people are going to find a way to feed this beast. Right. So, the fact that consumption is so difficult also indirectly makes the control over the supply also difficult.

You see what I'm saying? So, if you look at them in isolation supply, it would be easier, in my view. But then you have the feedback loop from consumption that pushes for more supply. Yeah.

Åsa Borssén:
And sea management has produced some wins. We’ve talked a lot about the negatives. But there are some positives as well. Some whales used to be seriously endangered, are now recovering. What do you say? How can we balance fish stocks more generally?

Rashid Sumaila:
Yeah, it's good to actually talk about the success stories because that motivates a good part of the population, right. I mean, some people when they see good news they do more. Which is great. But it's also good to talk about where we are lacking because that also might be some of us, some portion of the population. When we see that things are going bad, we say, let's do something right. So, yeah, it's good to balance the discussion of both. So, you have some countries that come out as doing well. The U.S. has been cited a number of times. And one of the things is making sure that is that there are good legislating rules on the ground. Right. And are you able to monitor control, make sure people follow? And another thing is actually creating marine protected areas that have been shown to protect yourself from shocks, from surprises, you know. So, you put part of your fish portfolio in a protected area. So, if we mess up, if we mess up by mistakes or whatever, where we fish at least we have the backup to help us recede. So, you have all those kinds of mechanisms that different jurisdictions have used better than others. And we've seen some positive results. The whale example you give is a good one on the West Coast of Canada, here we have seen some whale populations actually increase because of all the effort by people pushing governments, scientists and so on. So, yes. So balancing conservation and economics is another big challenge, right. And that's why we're talking about black balance in the future. And now there's a lot of pressure to just get what we need from now, which is actually handicap our future. You know, in many ways. So, we have to find a way to balance that, too, right?

Åsa Borssén:
Fisheries, it seems like a very lucrative business. And yet fishing is heavily subsidized. And this is something I've been thinking about for a long time. Why on earth is fishing subsidized?

Rashid Sumaila:
Yes. And we my group we spend a lot of time looking at looking at subsidies and the quantity that ties the price and so on. So, you’re right on with this question. What we find is that there are several reasons, as you would expect. Sometimes this is historical. For example, we see that after the Second World War, the fish populations were traveling whilst people were busy going after each other. The fish got the kind of peace to really grow. Unfortunately, right. Yeah. So then after the war countries say, OK, we need to feed the people. And so, some subsidies were given. Boats were bought for people to go out and fish what where then healthy fish stocks in many places. So now what we realize is once you do something like that, which was probably wise to do at the time, it's difficult to take it away once it is given to a community. And so, for political reasons this just keeps going on. So that's one reason. In some cases, the fishing sector is just a big lobby. They have the political vote. I gave a talk in the Canadian parliament and one of the parliamentarians said, are you saying this Rashid? You want us to go, you want me to go to my constituency and say I'm taking their subsidies? Are you crazy? And I said, of course I understand what you're talking about. But, sir, if Canadian law legislation says you want to manage our fish stocks for the benefit of all Canadians, that means you have to do this sustainably. You have to consider the biomass, then you don't give subsidy, you know. I mean, I would love to get free money, but that's just not the point, you know. So, you have all these political undertones that that keeps us doing this kind of stuff.

Åsa Borssén:
And what would you like to see there? Would you like to see just all subsidies gone, is that the road forward?

Rashid Sumaila:
Yeah, actually, if you look at subsidies just like almost anything, it's not all bad. You know, subsidies are not all bad. Its roots come from economics, actually. Usually economists will say private entities, private people, companies we do things to meet our own interests. OK, let's assume that. And now interest can be broad. If you are a doctor, you care about your patients really having good health. that is because you care about that so is part of this interest. It is broader than just me, me, me. OK. So, once you do that, we produce impacts on third parties, on the environment that we do not consider in our private way. You get it. So that is what is called an externality, a technical term, externality. So, I do my thing and I impact you and I don't take that into account. And this thing is not all negative. It can be a good thing if you create something that other people benefit, and you don't charge them. It is a positive externality. But if I drive my car and I pump out CO2 and it affects the health of somebody as that is a negative externality. So, if I give you a fisheries subsidy and that makes you fish more and overfish, that is a bad externality. And we shouldn't give a penny to those kinds of activities because we aggravate the overfishing problem, which is already there. Even without that because of the common propertied nature of this resource, people race to catch it. If I don't catch it, if you catch it before me, it's yours it’s not mine. That is already a problem. And then on top of that, we give subsidies that push people to fish. So, take up all what we call harmful subsidies or redirect them into good subsidies.

Where did I read…where was it recently they were given…They were paying fishers to clean up the oceans. It's almost like we paid to catch plastic rather than fish, you know. So I think that's a good use of public funds because, number one, the fishers get their income, which is beautiful. We don't want anyone to starve. No. And then they clean the oceans. So, the ocean gets better. They leave the fish alone. So, we have better fish biomass next round. Win, win, win. Everybody is good. That is the kind of acting ways to spend public funds, increase conservation and improve almost all the things we care about.

Åsa Borssén:
So, smart governance. One funny thing about fish is that they don't respect national boundaries at all. What do you say? Should fish stocks be governed by a supra national organization in some ways?

Rashid Sumaila:
Ideally, that will be the way to go, because it's true that most fish don't respect borders. They go where they go. You know, I gave a talk in London just close to when the Brexit thing was so hotly debated. I said, hey, guys, you can Brexit as much as you want. The fish don't care, frankly, they go where they go. Right. And then I was in the US and I was telling them, you know, Mexican, American fish will go where they go. Right. So, you're right there. So, again, you have to go into the type of fish and how they lived their life. Now, there are some fishes that live all their lives within country waters. You know, there are some I mean, they don't go far and there, national management can handle that. So that is great. Then you have fish that move between neighboring countries. So, we call them transboundary fish. There's a lot of those because if you are in Canada and the US or any other country, you know what, let's say South Africa and Namibia, the fishery will not go into international water, but they go through both country waters. So, this will need regional management. And this happens in the Barents Sea. We have Norway and Russia managing cod stocks because they do that. In Namibia, South Africa, Angola they do that in the Benguela Current because some of the fish do that. Now, then there are fish that just go like crazy. We know a tuna species that goes through the borders of about 53 countries plus the high seas. You know, high seas are parts of the ocean that are not country waters, they are areas beyond national jurisdiction. And these kinds of fish really need global level management because you cannot not just do it. Otherwise, one person manages them well. They move into the next country and they just wack them, right. So, yes, you need that. And especially connected to the high seas, which is still actually technically anyone can fish there. We really need to be careful what happens there.

Åsa Borssén:
You have you proposed that it actually becomes a no-go zone for fishing. And so the fish can reproduce before going back into national boundaries. It sounds like a nice idea. But is this at all implementable?

Rashid Sumaila:
This is a crazy idea initially. When I started talking about it, people thought I was really crazy, right. But it came from really thinking about the ocean and what happens in there. Now, we have a large ocean, right? 70 percent of the earth's surface. So that is huge. And out of this, two-thirds of it is the high seas. That's a big chunk. In fact, it's half of the earth’s surface, the high seas. That is big. So now another fact about this is that about five to 10 percent of global fish catch is taken from within the high seas. OK. So, you have 65, 66 percent of the ocean and only five to 10 percent of the total fish we catch comes from there. Why is this so? This is because a lot of the productivity of fish stocks actually happens in what is called the continental shelves, and they are quite close to the coast of countries. Right. So, for me as an economist, that already was a red light. I said, oh, my gosh. So that means everything being equal, you are going to work harder, you are going to search more, you're going to burn more carbon - and you're going to catch only five percent or 10 percent. So right there, a red flag. It seems, it is very much more expensive to catch fish there. All right, then. Then the next thing we looked at was to say, actually, because if you're going to close the high seas or turn it into a fish bank - like I kind of described it as, a fish bank of the world where the fish can travel and then one day you the interest when they move into your waters cheaply. Right. Economically wise. Now, when you when we look at the total species we catch and say how much of the fish we catch live all their lives in the high seas, they don't get out of the high seas? This was shocking even to me. Less than one percent of all the fish we catch spend all their lives in the high seas. The rest of them go in and out. So, for me, this is voilà. So that means if we close the whole high seas, it's only this one percent of fish that will never have the opportunity to catch. The rest of them will move in and out. And at some point, you can get some of it. You see that. So, you know, you’re not shutting all the catch in a way, you’re just giving the fish a break. When they are there, they get the peace like going on holiday. You got to relax, they got all the chances to grow and then you come back and start work again. Right. But at least give me that break here. So that's the concept. And initially people thought it's crazy, but actually it just caught fire recently. And we've just got a big part of the Antarctic. The Ross Sea has been declared a high sea closure. Oh, my. There’s a real push to do this.

Now, your question about implementation. That is, I think that's the interesting one. When I get the question, I want to be a little bit naughty and say, come on I’m just a scientist what do I know? I thought about this and I just drop it. Let's that other minds actually think about how to implement it. But actually, more seriously, I think technology can really help us do this if the world decides we can, because this is possible to actually read from satellite the number on fishing boats in certain area of the ocean. It's actually the type of boats that go into the high seas: they are usually large, so they are very visible, not the small boats you see in Senegal or something. Right. So, there is a technology to do this. And also, there's another beauty to this is simplicity to the whole idea, because once the whole high seas is closed, when you see a big boat there, you know what they are doing right. So that, again, could make it easier to really manage but if you open again then they can hide and sneak in and all that. So, but more thinking needs to be done. I don't think it's impossible. Actually, we have the capabilities to do it. It's just the political will to make that decision and move ahead with it.

Åsa Borssén:
Rashid, it's been a pleasure talking to you about the seas and fish. And before we finish, I'd like to ask you, put your hand on your heart and tell me, are you optimistic about the future of the sea?

Rashid Sumaila:
This is a difficult question. It is a difficult question because I see all the data, I see all the trends and they are kind of very scary.

It is difficult because actually I don't think I have an option not to be optimistic because the alternative that means giving up and we'll just go down the tube even faster and greater. And we'll lose the chance of ever turning things around. So because of that, actually, I'm still optimistic and I really believe this because we have no option to be pessimistic because that will be a disaster.

And as an African, I think if I just sit here and I say, oh, my God, this is impossible, I can do anything then that she didn't do it. It did. I'm wondering what Nelson Mandela would be thinking in his grave. This lazy little guy. Come on.

So, let's go out. Let's keep pushing. Let's keep fighting to make the world better because without doing that, it'll be a huge disaster.

Åsa Borssén:
Rashid, thank you very much for joining us.

Rashid Sumaila:
You're most welcome. Thank you for having me. Fantastic.

Åsa Borssén:
And to our listeners - thank you for joining us today. I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the oceans.  This podcast was done with support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, through BGR, and the Inter-American Development Bank. Make sure to subscribe to our channel on whichever podcast platform you are using. We will be back very soon. Until then, so long!