UBC researchers take home 'Nobel Prize for the environment,' call to ban high seas fishing

Two UBC researchers who won the ‘Nobel Prize for the environment’ are using their platforms for advocacy on the global stage.

Dr. Daniel Pauly and Dr. Rashid Sumaila were awarded the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement for their interdisciplinary work on sustainability in global fish stocks on February 22. Their impressive research records amount to a central call to action: It’s time to ban fishing on the high seas.

Reeling in more equitable oceans

The trouble with fishing on the high seas is its unfairness, according to Pauly.

Fishing can happen in two distinct ocean regions: the high seas which begin 200 miles beyond the shoreline, and the region closer inland called the exclusive economic zone. Fish caught within a country's exclusive economic zone are claimed by the nation alone, but since the high seas are considered international waters, its resources belong to all global citizens — or rather, whoever has the money and resources to fish there.

Without high seas fishing, fish would naturally swim within the exclusive economic zones of maritime countries but, according to Pauly, a small group of nations fishing on the high seas decimate these populations before they have the chance to do so.

According to Pauly, though the high seas take up 60 per cent of the world’s oceans, they only produce 5-8 per cent of fish caught globally, making them “enormous, but very unproductive.”

High seas fishing also increases atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations due to emissions from shipping and travel, and by decimating fish populations that are known sinks for carbon dioxide in themselves. The overexploitation of fish stocks on the high seas is also worrying for economic, environmental and sustainability reasons.

In a 2015 Scientific Reports article co-authored by Pauly and Sumaila, they performed a series of modeling tests to examine high seas fishing and the potential impacts of limiting it. Their modeling predicted no loss of global fishing catch in the event of a ban, as fish stocks would be expected to move into the exclusive economic zone of maritime countries.

The study also highlights an important economic benefit: in theory, a high seas fishing ban should improve equity between nations since a valuable resource would be accessible to 20-30 countries rather than the handful of nations responsible for most of the high seas fishing.

This study, alongside other impressive individual contributions from both researchers, add weight to proposals for a high seas fishing ban.

“A number of problems: criminality, greenhouse gas emissions, food insecurity, equity between countries would be resolved,” said Pauly.

Hook, line and thinker

Pauly and Sumaila advocate for eliminating government subsidies to big fishing companies as one way to limit unsustainable fishing on the high seas.

Subsidies are a form of government financial support. Since high seas fishing is so expensive, some governments subsidize fishing companies to cover costs, in the hopes that this can make their national fishing industries more productive and profitable.

A Journal of Bioeconomics study co-authored by Pauly and Sumaila suggested that billions of dollars subsidize international high seas fishing. Without them, high seas fishing would have never been profitable in the first place.

“If subsidies were abolished, much of the high sea fishing would cease anyway without a ban, because it's so expensive and there's so little fish,” said Pauly. “Without subsidy, they cannot make a profit.”

Sumaila and Pauly started a petition to the United Nations to advocate for the banning of fishing on the high seas. The petition, which culminated in nearly 2,000 supporters, also called for the United Nations to declare the high seas a protected area and implement an initiative to enforce the ban.

Sumaila expressed excitement at the community support that their petition received. He encouraged students passionate about their cause to reach out to researchers, volunteer with NGOs like OceanWise and Equal Trust and build relationships with experts in the field.

Catch of the year

Sumaila highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of his work: As an economist, he has worked with ecologists, social scientists, mathematicians and philosophers in the endeavor to protect our oceans.

“I really believe that our ocean problems cannot be solved by one discipline,” he said. “The ocean is a wonderful laboratory for collaborative, interdisciplinary work [and] co-creation of knowledge.”

For Sumaila and Pauly, the Tyler Prize is an acknowledgement of their exceptional contributions to the field of ocean science and economics, in addition to their advocacy work.

Sumaila said this award holds additional significance as it was awarded during Black History Month. He hopes that this win will be encouraging for people like him, whose communities are underrepresented in STEM.

“As an African and a Black [man], this can motivate and show people of colour in general… to see this award and say ‘Ok we can do it’,” he said.

“We can do whatever we set our mind to.”