I’m afraid of what Mandela would think of me”

July 2023 (Part 2)

In the second part of this Q&A feature with Tyler Prize co-winner Dr. Rashid Sumaila, the renowned marine economist sheds light on the importance of marine life for us all, the challenges facing our oceans – from overfishing to climate change – and the potential of ‘Infinity Fish’.

(This interview is part two in a series. You can read part one here).

Rashid Sumaila (Photo Credit: Kim Bellavance)

Rashid, how would you explain the importance of the ocean to someone for whom it seems otherwise unimportant?  

Well, it comes down to one question – “what happens if we have a dead ocean?” 

Whether you eat fish or you don’t eat fish, the ocean is relevant to you. If you just think about oxygen: 50% of the oxygen on earth is generated in the ocean – by life in the ocean from algae to animals. So this factor alone means that the ocean is our life. Without the ocean, you and I will have only half of the oxygen we need. What is half a person? 

 The ocean moderates the temperature. Now we’re talking about climate change. The ocean absorbs about 25 –30% of the CO2 we pump out, which is a lot! Without it, the impacts that we are seeing from climate change will be worse… or, we will have to spend money to clean up this extra 30%, which would be huge… billions. 

So the ocean is our life – all life depends on life in the ocean. Whether you eat fish or not, whether you are in the middle of America or in the middle of anywhere – the ocean touches your life.

Tell us about the impact of overfishing on subsistence fishing communities.

Subsistence fishers in our coastal communities all over the world, including in Canada, have been fishing to feed their families forever. Now we are overdoing it with our big industrial trawlers, competing with them, taking the fish and depleting the stock. That has serious consequences on the ability, for example, to send their kids to school What about food? What about medicine? Fish are so central and you can look at all sorts of indicators that are being impacted by the lack of fish.

For example in West Africa, we know there is evidence of more environmental refugees, people who don’t have the resources they used to depend on, who are leaving their home countries when the temperature gets too high – they move and follow the cold water. People don’t just sit down and die! So you have forced migration, environmental refugees who have to leave their villages, get onto rickety boats in West Africa to try to get to Europe. Some of them sink and die. Those who get to Europe, they have social problems. 

We need to take good care of our fish and therefore our fishing communities and remove all these kinds of pressures. 

Why is overfishing still happening?

If you allow me to apply game theory here, I think what is happening is that fish are a common resource in most cases. Even if it is within a country, technically everyone can fish. If you are an American or Australian, you have the right to fish or acquire the right to fish. And you don’t have the fish until you catch it. So the tendency is to compete for the fish. That leads us to what we call ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’. We are all competing and before you know it, we’re in hell together. 

We also like to front-load our benefits and backload our costs. This is another area of interest for me. This is essentially discounted in economics where we say a dollar to you today is no more than a dollar to you tomorrow. Which is true, but the tendency is also to want to empty the ocean and get the money now.

Then you have the politics, of course. When I was at the White House giving a talk about short-term, long-term, front loading, and back loading, the then-head of the office for management and budget came to me and said “Everything you’ve said makes sense to me here in the White House. Four years, that’s what matters. We have four years to get everything done”. So we have the short-termism of our politics and of our market system. All this helps us to push our environment to breaking point. 

 So we are fighting all these forces – and that’s why it’s so difficult.

You’ve written a letter to the UN to request a fishing ban on the high seas. Can you tell us about it and how you hope it will help?

You need to think of the ocean as one global ocean. The fish don’t care about the division between the  North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean etc. We have to think of our ocean as a global system… and therefore our management has to be talked about, designed, and implemented as a global system. 

With Exclusive Economic Zones, the UN gave countries the mandate to actually control, manage, and monitor what goes within their waters. But the high seas does not have anything like that. From the economic point of view, I started thinking about all the fishing in the high seas and it just didn’t make sense to me. Number one, the high seas is about two thirds of the whole global ocean but only about 5% of the total global catch – so it’s very expensive and carbon intensive to fish there. Only a few countries actually managed to fish there: the big rich ones.

And then you have this delicate biodiversity in there, lots of very long-living fish which are very important for the environment. Our analysis showed that if you don’t fish in the high seas, you support biodiversity. You can then catch fish more cheaply, so economicly it is good. Small countries can also improve their catch. There’s fewer emissions, so it’s good for the climate. That’s why we’re calling for this and hopefully the world will listen. 

We need to push our governments to do what science is telling us is the right thing to do: seal off the high seas. Then we can concentrate on managing country-owned waters as best as possible. 

Your proposal for a ban on fishing on the High Seas is gaining global traction. Who is with you on the proposed ban on fishing on the High Seas?

A number of scientists really see value in this, including Sylvia Earle, who jumped out of her chair at a UN conference when I mentioned it – she loves this idea. Many NGOs have subscribed to this. When we published our paper in 2015, I was invited to the UN to talk about it three times. Small island development states, African countries, including land-locked countries and Caribbean countries have all been very interested. Then you have big countries like the US and Canada where some politicians have shown an interest. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has actually closed the Ross Sea to fishing in Antarctica.  Many of us see this as the first large marine protected area in the High Seas. So support is coming. 

Why haven’t we banned fishing on the High Seas already? 

There are a few countries that really benefit, and those few are also powerful. In our calculations, I think six to eight countries in the world take about 70 to 80% of all the revenues from fishing. You have China, Japan, Korea, and Spain. So somehow the rest of the world has to find a way to convince these people that what they’re doing is damaging. 

Infinity Fish – can you explain the concept to us and also tell us about your book of the same name? 

Essentially, the concept Infinity Fish is trying to capture is that fish are renewable resources. If we manage them well, if we use them wisely – they can continue to deliver fish to us for food, for income, for jobs – forever. Fish are renewable, unlike diamonds or gold. If you mine diamonds, you cannot go back and dig them again. So that’s one aspect of the infinity fish. And mathematically, anything that gives you a benefit, even if it is small, year in year – if you sum it up over time – its total is infinity… therefore ‘Infinity fish’. 

The second reason I say this is that fish are valuable to so many, unlike something like diamonds – which only benefit a very small number. But fish – any family on the coast can go get fish, feed their family and do their little economics, and so on. Current generations have an obligation to ensure that we pass on a healthy ocean teaming with life to our children and grandchildren. So they too can have the option to do the same. 

Infinity Fish is a book I published in 2021. I actually like to see it as my COVID-supported book in a way because when COVID came, all the travel stopped! This is the book I had in mind, and I finally had the time to do it. 

How long do we have until the possibility of having ‘infinity fish’ is beyond us? 

That is a difficult question to answer precisely, of course. A controversial paper published in Science in 2006 predicted that if we continue doing the things we are doing, taking our fish, catching the big fish first, and so on – by 2050, all the world’s fish stocks will have crashed. Which means we would get less than 10% of the highest catch we ever got from global fishing. The paper received a lot of criticism, but I actually thought it wasn’t a terrible prediction. That gives you an idea.

Now, if we look at this in terms of species – there are already many species we have lost. So on that front, in answer to your question – the time is zero. The fish are gone.  Some species of Bluefin tuna are gone, Atlantic halibut and Chinese sturgeon are so depleted. So if you go species by species, you can find some that are already truly in danger. 

If you look at the estimates by country – most countries are not managing their resources well. Some do, better than others: the US, Norway, and Namibia for example, come out reasonably well. But our lives are complicated. Even if you manage your fish, we also have to also think about the whole ecosystem. We have to think about climate change, pollution, plastic, etc. Even if the US manages her waters well, but without dealing with climate change, plastic pollution, and all the debris, we are still in the mess. 

So, no ocean is really in good shape. But there is hope. The US is one of the countries that spends a lot of resources and has committed to the 30 x 30 campaign that is, creating protected areas to cover 30 percent of their water 2030. So there are good signs of progress. 

For those of us who want to take action to protect our oceans, what would you recommend that we do? 

It’s a big question – ‘How can we contribute to making sure that we have sustainable fisheries and a healthy ocean?’ … because there are many ways to approach it! 

As individuals, we have a role to play. I like to see this as collective action: we all have to work together to push in our own ways. Because all of us make our little decisions here and there and it all adds up. So, be a conscious consumer – and I know it’s not easy to do – but find sustainable fish that are also ethically produced, not using modern slave labor, for example. 

At the individual level, you can also support organizations that are pushing for sustainability – NGOs and so on. You can actually write to your member of parliament or other politicians. And private entities and companies have a lot of influence. They can influence our government, our consumption. So any way we can support responsible, sustainable, and inclusive businesses and push companies forward, is another thing we can do. 

This takes us up to the government and the policy level. We’ve got to push our governments to do what we know is the right thing to do. Because without our environment, without our ocean, we’re in trouble.

Why do you maintain hope for the future of our oceans? 

I am hopeful. And there are many reasons. Number one, if you look back in history, actually, even though there are many things that people haven’t done well, there are things we have improved, like civil rights, and gender rights.  And the second one is, what option do you have – to give up? No. We don’t give up. That is what keeps the world going.

Finally, when I think about optimism the person I think about is Nelson Mandela. And I’m wondering if I say I don’t have hope, what will Mandela be thinking in his grave? He would say, “Come on, Rashid. Why would you give up? Keep going. Try your best to contribute to making the world a better place.” So I’m afraid of what Mandela would think of me if I lose hope!

Many thanks to Rashid Sumaila, our 2023 Tyler Prize Laureate, for sharing his knowledge with us. 

You can read part 1 of the interview here.

To read more on Dr. Sumaila’s incredible work:

YouTube – Dr. Rashid Sumaila – “We really have to do something about this!”

YouTube – Dr. Rashid Sumaila – “I’m afraid of what Mandela will think of me if I lose hope”

Faculty Website: Dr. Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia

Fisheries Economics Research Unit

UBC, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs (SPPGA) – Get to Know UBC SPPGA Prof. Rashid Sumaila