Fishing: A personal reverie, systems simulation, and sustainability challenges

blue fishing boat
Gone fishing

As we entered the lecture hall today, we saw ten placards spread around the class. The twin professors were already there to usher us in. They asked us to form teams of three and sit behind one of the placards. Blue Lagoon, Salmon Fry, Atlantic Crew, Brave Sharks – some of the names on these placards.

When all of us were seated, the professor asked us to guess what we expected to be doing today based on names on these placards. I looked around and found that the names on these placards had a common theme relating to ocean and fishes.

“Are we Pirates?” a classmate asked. The professor denied.

A few more guesses later, it was revealed to us that we were fishing companies. We were going to fish.

Fish, fishing, fish markets, the ocean – these are magical to me. I could observe them with awe for hours. In Chennai, one of my most favorite activities was to walk through the little fish market that ran parallel to the beach. In the evenings, you’d see women seated on both sides of the road with fishes of different sizes and colors brought in from the sea by their menfolk only a little while earlier. You’d feel the cool breeze of the sea and your nose would tingle from the ocean smell of fresh fish. You’d hear the names of fishes crooned by the sellers to attract buyers. Just beside the sellers would be the other women who cleaned and sliced the fish that the customers had bought, an additional service that you have to pay for. People ambled from vendor to vendor, wide-eyed, and all along pregnant with the excitement of a delicious fish dinner later in the night.

I think the certain thrill is because fishing is the only act and fish is the only food that still retains the primeval adventure of hunting-gathering that is no more in poultry or meat or other common food. Most food is domesticated and raised in captivity, while most fish still comes from the untamed sea.

With this elevated mood, I was all set for the simulation. We owned ships which we used for fishing. We would be competing with the other teams in the class. Our task was to increase our net worth by the end of the ten rounds. Our revenue came from our catch. Our decisions were limited to two things. One, we could buy and sell ships; two, we decided where to send our ships – deep ocean, coastal ocean, or keep them in the harbor. Each had its own cost. The decision on where to send your ship rested on the expected catch per ship which was determined by where our competitors chose to send their ships.

One of our team members who knew a little about this game warned that this was about sustainability. The teams would buy a lot of ships initially to rake in the revenues but they do not account for the fact that the stock of fish depletes as every team indulges in over-fishing. The average catch per fish then drops to a nadir that it is not economically sustainable to operate the business.

From this insight, we tried to formulate our strategy. While we understood the perils of owning too many ships, we also understood the need to have enough ships in the initial stages to rake in some revenues. The broad idea was to buy more ships initially and auction the ships when there is still demand for ships in the market. If we’re too late, the competitors would figure out that low fish stock and would not be interested in buying the ships. We debated what would be ideal time to start selling the ships. One said it shouldn’t be before the sixth round, another said that it might be too late. The professor leaned in to listen as we discussed our strategic options.

The game began. It was year one, the catch was good. Both coastal and deep ocean were equally attractive. We bought a few ships. And then, into the fourth round, a gap developed between the profitability of coastal and deep ocean based on what the other teams decided. We had to play a guessing game about where the nine other teams would send their ships. Being overly rational, we started to simply assign our ships equally to diversify our risk. A round later, we managed to sell a couple of our ships. One team which had too many ships on its balance sheet was desperately trying to off-load it. It came to a point when they were tried to sell their ships at a price lower than the price of a fish!

The game came to a close. The team with the most ships was at the bottom of the table. We were in the middle. It was expected. We followed a risk-averse strategy, we couldn’t have hoped for more returns.

We then played another cycle of the game. This time with the addition of an ‘association’ formed out of one member from each team. The association met after every three rounds to discuss matters regarding industry regulation. However, the decisions made are not binding on the members. But the association did not have any impact on the game, in fact, no decisions made. The association was hijacked by a few loud voices who believed they understood what was happening in the industry and also had the solutions to it. Much of it was targeted at the player with the highest number of ships who was raking in a lot in revenues. No one spoke about the need to protect the resources.

Soon, the fish stock in the ocean went to zero. The industry crashed.  Everyone, along with the player that owned the highest number of ships lost. Self-regulation did not work. Everyone was a loser in the end. Even nature. It was a tragedy of commons.

It was half past ten in the night, well past the scheduled class time. We had to break for the night, quite reluctantly. The simulation was surprisingly effective in demonstrating the tragedy of the commons, and self-preservative decision-making that leads to this outcome. When we discussed in our team if we should propose a rule of alternating between coastal and deep ocean fishing for the whole industry, we dismissed that reasoning it would hamper our revenues.

But it is not just a game. This situation is too close to reality that it is terrifying. Over-fishing is a danger that is imminent. Today, there are parts of the ocean that are wiped out of fish population. How the world’d oceans could be running out of fish is an interesting BBC feature that narrates the danger we face. Meanwhile, countries like China, who have exhausted their own fishing resources are now subsidizing and sending large fishing carriers into African waters, hitting the livelihood, the food source, and the marine resources of the African coastal nations like Senegal. This could be the next biggest geopolitical tension.

Last year, I had picked up an interesting travel book on a related theme. In Following Fish: Travels Around the India Coast, author Samanth Subramanian chronicles how fish intertwines with the history and the culture of the coastal regions of India. He explores it through food, religion, history, fishing communities, sport, ship-building, and many more. It is a riveting read. Recalling the book reminds me of the smell of the ocean.

A couple of days from now, we will return to class to apply systems thinking to the fishing simulation and do policy analysis to tackle issues of tragedy of the commons and sustainability. It is all very important and critical to our world. If we continue to do business as usual, my enjoyable walks in the little fish market, the livelihoods of many a people, the fascination of the ocean, and the above-mentioned author’s chronicles would become a thing of the past. It would be a shame to lose our blessings.

.  .  .

The simulation is MIT Sloan School’s Fishbanks: A Renewable Resource Management Simulation. It can be accessed by anyone. Try your hand at it.