Chapter 1


“Fish is more valuable than diamond”

When we look around us we see the decline of renewable natural resources, such as fish stocks and forests; the pollution of the environment, e.g., marine plastic pollution; and the warming, acidification, and deoxygenation of the ocean, and we wonder why? Well, in this book I argue that these depletions and destructions of nature are partly due to the way we value the environment (including our ocean and the marine life it holds) and how we value or not value all the amazing services it provides us. The lack of proper valuation of the goods and services derived from the environment is a fundamental reason why we have so far failed to take good care of the ocean (and the environment at large). It is essential that we get these valuations right, so that the ocean can, in turn, continue to take care of both current and future generations. Below I present a story that may help explain what I mean.

In 2012, I was invited to give a talk on how to sustain Africa’s marine fisheries in Namibia in the presence of three African Ministers of Fisheries (of Namibia, Sierra Leone and the Seychelles) and other high level African fisheries policy makers, managers and members of the fisheries and diamond mining sectors of the country. A key point I made during my talk was that, “Fish is more valuable than diamond”. This assertion shocked both the advocates of fisheries and those of the diamond mining sector – the former pleasantly shocked while the latter was dismayed because I was turning the belief of both sectors, that diamond is more valuable than fish, on its head.

I provided the following reasons to support my assertion. First, wild fish stocks are renewable resources, i.e., if they are used wisely they will continue to provide food and livelihoods to tens of millions of people worldwide, forever. Mathematically, anything that gives a positive net benefit forever, no matter how small, the net benefits over time will sum to infinity. This then was the inspiration for the title of this book – Infinity fish. On the other hand, diamond is nonrenewable, it is therefore ‘not forever’, as popular parlance would have us believe – once you deplete a diamond deposit, it is gone forever. I know you will say but we can invest the proceeds from mining diamonds to obtain a stream of net benefits forever. Well, experience shows that societies are not that good in using windfalls from natural resources. History is replete with examples of countries wasting their windfalls – the so-​called ‘Dutch Disease’, a term coined to capture the adverse effects on the Dutch economy after the discovery of huge natural gas deposits in the 1960s (Corden, 1984).

The second justification for my assertion is that while fish and fisheries directly impact people by feeding and nourishing millions (Srinivasan et al., 2010, 2010) (Hicks et al., 2019) and providing livelihoods to more millions (Teh & Sumaila, 2013) (Sumaila, 2019, 2019), the diamond sector is a very elitist economic sector that directly employs and supports the livelihoods of much fewer people around the world. Take any sample of people in any country that is endowed with both fish and diamond, and ask how many of them have eaten fish in the last month versus how many of them have ever touched, seen or benefited directly from diamond, and I bet you there would be many more people who have done the former than those who can answer in the affirmative to the latter.

My point of departure in this book is that to ensure nature’s gift to humanity is fully realised, we need to ensure Infinity fish becomes a reality, and to do so we need to reassess how individuals and society (we) value fish stocks and the ecosystem that holds them. We need to re-​evaluate how we value the present versus the future, and how we value market and non-​ market values. A key challenge to economics is how to value benefits from marine ecosystems in a comprehensive manner and in a way that captures their long-​term value.

I explore in this contribution the important issue of values and valuation and demonstrate that the way we currently value our marine living resources helps to deplete them. I emphasize the economic approach of discounting in fisheries, that is, the mechanism by which the present value of a flow of benefits to be received in the future is determined today. Given the time value of money, a dollar is worth more today than it would be worth tomorrow (Robinson, 2020, 2020). As commercial fishers and fisheries managers often view fish as money, discounting plays an important role in their economic choices as to when and how much to fish (Akpalu, 2008) (L. C. L. Teh & Sumaila, 2013). Meanwhile, discounting has been identified by many environmental economists as a possible source of problem when dealing with projects with long-​term benefits and short-​term costs (Heal, 1998) (Stern et al., 2006, 2006) such as fisheries (Clark, 1973) (Ekeland et al., 2015, 2015) and climate change (Cheung et al., 2013, 2013) (Sumaila et al., 2011, 2011). In the case of fisheries, the consequences of discounting is to undermine the conservation of fish stocks, hampering the ability of not only future generations, but also the current generation, to meet their fish protein needs. I provide suggestions on how to value these resources in order to ensure that they are conserved and used sustainably so our grandchildren can also have the opportunity to do the same for their own grandchildren.

As humans, we tend to view anything close to us, both temporarily and spatially, as ‘large and weighty’ while we put little or no weight to anything further away from us. This tendency, which is partly captured by the economic concept of discounting (Pigou, 1920) (Ramsey, 1928) (Sumaila, 2004), has been a big stumbling block to our ability to live in harmony with nature (Sumaila & Walters, 2005) (Robinson, 2020). This partly explains why we keep over-​exploiting biodiversity (Brondizio et al., 2019, 2019) (Isabella et al., 2020) (Ruckelshaus et al., 2020), and in particular depleting marine fish stocks (Jackson et al., 2001) (Pauly et al., 2002). It also partly explains why we keep polluting the environment, e.g. with C02 (Isabella et al., 2020) and plastic (Abbott and Sumaila, 2019) (Lau et al., 2020, 2020) because we want to front-​load our benefits (Sumaila, 2004). It is also partly the reason we are unable to stop depleting both marine and terrestrial biodiversity (Ruckelshaus et al., 2020) (Pauly et al., 2002) and unable to take action to mitigate climate change (Pörtner, 2019, 2019) because we want to back-​load our costs (Sumaila, 2004)! Not surprisingly, valuation of environmental and natural resources is a topical issue that continues to draw the attention of researchers in this area. It goes without saying that proper valuation of the goods and services derived from marine ecosystems, in particular, and the environment, in general, is crucial in helping society make rational decisions on how to trade-​off different competing uses for these resources (W. W. Cheung et al., 2013, 2013) (Turkelboom et al., 2018, 2018).

Discounting plays a critical role in fisheries management as it determines fisher behaviour. If managers and decision makers can understand fishers’ rate of discounting (L. S. Teh et al., 2014, 2014), they can make more informed management decisions to support sustainability and the conservation of fish stocks (Sumaila & Domínguez‐​Torreiro, 2010). The discounting approach presented in this book is easily digestible and in line with common sense, the proposed approaches are novel and differentiate themselves from existing books such as: Pannell and Schilizzi (Pannell & Schilizzi, 2006, 2006), which “tackles the discounting issue from a number of angles, ranging from relatively short-​term private financial decisions, to very long-​term public issues spanning generations”; (Gollier, 2012, 2012), which outlines the basic theory of the discount rate and the various arguments that favor using a smaller discount rate for more distant cash flows”; and (Kula, 1997, 1997), who contends that conventional time-​dependent theories in welfare economics are based on the unwarranted assumption that people live forever, an assumption that underpins the criteria for many decision-​making activities and one that leads public sector policy makers to discriminate against future generations. These books (including this one) identify the problem associated with discounting just as Pigou (Pigou, 1920, 1920) and Ramsey (Ramsey, 1928) did much earlier. The contribution of the current book is that it proposes a different ‘out of the conventional economics box’ solution to the problem identified.

The chapters in the book are organized around four broad issues: (i) broadening the scope of what we value with respect to fish and the marine ecosystem; (ii) explicitly taking the interest of future generations into account by proposing ‘intergenerational discounting’; (iii) presenting some applications of discounting to real world management challenges; and (iv) Tackling broader issues in support of Infinity fish.

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