A BSL class simulation foreshadows EU fish-stocks

In late June our BBA II class, Solving Big Problems (SBP), played the MIT Fishbanks simulation and competed so fiercely, it eliminated all the fish in the ocean in just five years. Interestingly, the same forces that drove our fishermen to crash their stocks of fish in the simulation, are playing themselves out at the EU level today, and the debrief we made of the game is instructive in this regard.

The simulation

The goal for each player is to maximise your net worth – the net worth being cash from fish sales plus the value of your stock of boats minus debts. Each team is a fishing team, and they can trade boats, order new boats to be built, as well as choose whether they keep their boat in harbour, fish in coastal waters, or  fish in the deep sea.  In good years, profitability is highest in the deep sea (bigger catches), and most of the teams sought to acquire boats as quickly as possible, and deploy them into the deep.  The money rolled in.

And then came the crash.  Some teams had seen the crash coming, had been prudent with expenditures, sold their boats early, and came out net positive even after 7 years of no-fish.   Most lost their shirts, and were left with worthless stock.  One team sought to win by cornering the market on all the boats, but in a world of no demand, they went colossally into debt.

A key dynamic

In SBP,  we work a great deal with systems thinking, understanding causal drivers, and finding leverage points for intervention. In reviewing the simulation, Ola Kayal suggested that one of the key drivers to overfishing was the rule in the game that every round started with a boat auction.  This keeps the focus rather on boats than on fishing, and the focus on boats obscures that on fish.  As a result, teams seek to amass boats, often borrowing money to do so, and then deploy them vigorously in order to make their money back.  This shift in focus ignores fishstocks which are in any case difficult to calculate, variable due to a host of possible conditions, and reported with a great lag.

Lessons for the EU

The EU has long been aware of the fish stock crashes, and has vigorous legislation in force to protect fisheries from overfishing.  National governments struggle to enforce these in light of local pressures, and voluntary efforts such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, are only modestly successful, and at quite a small scale.  The current EU fleet of 83’000 boats, is considered twice as large as our oceans can sustain. Notwithstanding, the EU Parliament’s fishery committee last week approved an amendment to the Common Fisheries Policy that would provide €1.6 billion to build new fishing boats. (FT, July 11, 2013)

If our simulation is anything to go by (and to date only one group has managed to avoid crashing the fishstocks – Harley Davidson’s management team) this focus on ships ensures we will crash our fish stocks.

Caroline Rennie, BSL Professor


4 thoughts on “A BSL class simulation foreshadows EU fish-stocks

  1. “Give a man a fish and he will feed his family for a day,
    “Give a man a fishing rod and he will feed his family for life,
    “Give a man a fishing trawler and he will empty the oceans.”

    So what does this say for assumptions about our human behaviour, and what does this imply for government policy and industry sustainability?

  2. Well Elenor Ostrom, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, studied how societies manage the commons, and has many books on ways we do so successfully. It seems to me that where we fail is when we cannot understand the scale of the system – we do not yet work successfully on many global issues…

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