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Sustainable fisheries solution earns prestigious environmental prize for UBC economist

Randy Shore

University of British Columbia fisheries economist Rashid Sumaila. (Handout/University of British Columbia)

University of British Columbia fisheries economist Rashid Sumaila. (Handout/University of British Columbia)

A University of B.C. economist who has proposed radical solutions to save the world’s wild fisheries will receive a coveted environmental prize for his work, just as one of his recommendations is being implemented.

Rashid Sumaila will see the world’s first high seas protected area imposed in December in Antarctica, an idea at first dismissed as totally unrealistic.

"At first people thought it was crazy, but I couldn't let it go," explained the 2017 Volvo Environment Prize winner. "Most of the world's fish spend time in the high seas and in coastal areas, so we can still catch them."

By outlawing fishing outside the coastal waters that are under direct control of nations, "fish have a place to hide and grow bigger."

"When you do the calculations, that investment now pays for itself and more in the long run," he said. "The first step is showing that it can work, that we are likely to get more fish."

Sumaila is charting unexplored waters by applying the lens of economics, not to maximize profits, but to maximize the benefit of fisheries to everyone. He notes that 70 per cent of the value of high seas fishing goes to just 10 countries.

The Volvo jury praised his innovative, interdisciplinary approach "integrating the social and economic dimensions with ecology, law, fisheries science and traditional knowledge to build new pathways towards sustainable fisheries."

The award, which includes a cash prize of $225,000, will be presented in Stockholm on November 29.

Based on his research, Sumaila has also proposed ending subsidies to fisheries that lead to overfishing, and reducing the world's fishing fleets by up to 60 per cent.

"Globally, we have about two-and-a-half times more fleet than we need to catch what we should take sustainably," he said. "That is huge, and we know that it will be a tough conversation to have initially. But if we can absorb that shock through compensation to fishers the better our fisheries will be in the future."

The United States has already undertaken fleet reductions to reduce overfishing, he noted.

Sumaila is also finding an audience for his ideas at the European Union Fisheries Council, the United Nations, and with British royal environmental advocate Prince Charles.

The Prince approached Sumaila on the subject of subsidies with the notion of creating consensus for global action.

"He said, tell me which countries are causing the biggest problem for our oceans and I will invite them all to the palace for dinner," he recalled.