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Can behavioural economics improve the effectiveness of fisheries policy?

WGMARS hopes to nudge fisheries management in the right direction.
Published: 28 May 2020

​​​​When the Working Group on Maritime Systems (WGMARS​) renewed their Terms of Reference in 2019, the group decided to explore the potential use of behavioural economics in fisheries management and policy. But what exactly is behavioural economics? We asked Sarah Kraak (Thünen Institute of Baltic Sea Fisheries, Germany) to explain the concept and how it can be employed to improve the effectiveness of fisheries policy.

​​What is behavioural economics?

Behavioural economics (BE) can be characterised by the phrase Predictably Irrational (the title of a book by Dan Ariely, 2008). The discipline challenges the classical view of Homo economicus as a rational decision-maker, calculating costs and benefits and serving their own best interests. Instead, based on experimental findings, BE concludes that we have cognitive biases and emotional reactions, often leading to "irrational" behaviour. In addition, it is not only economic self-interest that drives us, but we may also have altruistic preferences, called "social motivations".

One of the pillars of BE is Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman's distinction between fast thinking (System 1) and slow thinking (System 2). System 1 consists of processes that are intuitive, automatic, experience-based, and relatively unconscious. System 2 is reflective, controlled, deliberative, and analytical. In decision-making, we use System 1 much more often than System 2.

Another pillar of BE is the "nudge" concept, popularised by Richard Thaler, another Nobel laureate, and Cass Sunstein: the active engineering of the choice architecture to change behaviour at an automatic level and in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.

To count as a nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. "Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not." Thus, according to the findings of BE, human beings are often "irrational" but in a systematic way (because of the underlying biology of the brain), hence "predictably".

BE has the potential to improve the effectiveness of governmental policies, e.g. by framing, priming, anchoring, using defaults, decoys, and social norms. A famous example of the influence of setting defaults is the case of the proportions, by nation, of people who consent to organ donation. In countries where the default is "no" but one can opt in, the percentages typically range from 4 to 28%, while in countries where the default is "yes" but one can opt out, these percentages range from 86 to 100%. BE ideas have been applied to various domains, including personal and public finance, health, energy, public choice, and marketing. In 2010, the UK government set up the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a special unit dedicated to applying behavioural science to public policy and services. The US government under the Obama administration set up a similar "nudge unit", as did the governments of numerous other countries.

What can behavioural economics offer fisheries management?

The question of whether BE can be used to improve the effectiveness of fisheries policy came up in ICES circles six years ago at the workshop Insights from Behavioural Economics to improve Fisheries Management (October 2014, funded by ICES Science Fund and the Fisheries Society of the British Isles). Ideas for future research were discussed and the group felt that their workshop was only the beginning of a journey. Two years later, ICES community explored this topic further at the 2016 Annual Science Conference (ASC) in Riga during the theme session Predictably Irrational – a new scientific research field for the science underpinning marine-resource management. Alongside presentations of studies on BE in fisheries and a panel discussion on paternalism and the ethics of applying BE and ​nudging, participants enlivened the session with demonstrations of experiments carried out during the ASC to illustrate the salience of BE findings.

In 2018, two relevant papers appeared from authors outside of our group, explicitly pointing to the use of BE in conservation (Cinner, 2018) and to reduce illegal fishing (Battista et al., 2018; the latter paper heavily citing our 2014 pr​oject report. Another 2018 paper (Mackay et al., 2018), by a PhD student of one of our group members, dealt with the potential of nudging in recreational fisheries. Nevertheless, these papers remained rather generic, proposing that BE findings could be useful but not identifying any specific situations where BE can potentially be operationalized and how. We picked this up as a research gap.

WGMARS and behavioural economics

Insights into human behaviour can predict how users respond to policy interventions and how stakeholders judge trade-offs between conflicting objectives. Beginning this year, WGMARS will analyse how the use of BE can support the implementation of the integrated ecosystem approach/ecosystem-based management. In doing so, we distinguish between so-called internalities (doing something that harms you; e.g. not wearing a life vest) and externalities (doing something that harms society; e.g. overfishing, burning fuel and releasing CO2).

Based on the identified lack of papers with operational real-world uses for BE in​ fisheries, we decided to focus on a few select problems in fisheries management and compare cases from around the world where BE has been or could be used to alleviate these problems.

The Working Group on Maritime Systems (WGMARS) is an expert group based on interdisciplinary collaboration and understanding of the coupled human/ocean system. The group focuses on understanding the implementation of integrated ecosystem assessments (IEA) at ICES. This is done in line with international advances to produce more holistic management advice that addresses not only ecological, but also economic, and social needs.​


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​Do​rothy Dankel, member of WGMARS, asking if scientists are predictably irrational at ICES ASC 2015.​

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Can behavioural economics improve the effectiveness of fisheries policy?

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