Empowerment by Choice, Empowerment by Design – The Fight for the Future of Coastal Communities.

Legacy Part 13 – Dyhia Belhabib –  Fisheries Scientist & Researcher

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By Jason Murphy, Founder & Creative Director

Dyhia Belhabib is a remarkable woman.

Born in Algeria in a small “village-slash-town” far from the sea and in a social environment that didn’t encourage women to make unconventional career choices, she became fascinated by the study of the ocean and, after a life-altering experience, the study of what makes the fishing industry – and fishing communities – tick.

She is the first participant in Sealives that I have interviewed not motivated by a particular interest in ocean life, but by a profound drive to support better fishing practices for the good of people first and foremost.

In the dark period of Algerian history during which she grew up, the documentaries of Jacques Cousteau – an inspiration to many around the world – were for her a symbol of death and calamity – the state-run TV station ran documentaries including those by Cousteau non-stop in place of regular programming after the death of major public figures at the hands of terrorism, including the assassination of the country’s newly elected president, and hoped-for savior from extremism, Mohamed Boudiaf by his own bodyguard immediately after his election. The images of a serene underwater world obscuring the political realities throwing her country into turmoil.

A Deeper Understanding Motivated by Socio-Economic Reality

Her decision to move to Algiers to study marine science was in the main a rebellion against the constraints of the world she grew up in, but that changed after a chance encounter with a local fisherman she met through her research – a grown man moved to tears by his inability to compete with the industrial fishing vessels surrounding him.

During all this, she learned to scuba dive – even though she cannot swim.

She came to Canada to do her Master’s in Science in Quebec and, after that, moved to BC do her PhD with Daniel Pauly. She now works for Ecotrust Canada – an NGO located on the more practical end of the ideological spectrum that seeks to make progress on ecological issues by tackling the underlying human socio-economic problems that contribute to them.

... systems based on Voodoo work better than what we have here, because those involved are incentivized to do the right thing by their beliefs.

In her work Dyhia has witnessed first hand the practicalities of what furthers and what stands in the way of healthy coastal communities and conducts rigorous scientific studies to capture the issues in all their complexity and detail. She has studied a wide array of fisheries management systems across the globe, finding, for instance, that even systems based on Voodoo work better than what we have here, because those involved are incentivized to do the right thing by their beliefs.

In BC she has been a part of Ecotrust Canada’s journey towards creating concrete proposals for regulatory change, and now her focus has expanded to coastal communities outside of BC – West Africa and elsewhere, where the issues she investigates go beyond fishing practices to encompass other community-impacting activity that occurs on fishing vessels – fish crime including drug smuggling and slavery.

Fisheries For Communities – Not Yet a Reality in Coastal BC

I met with her a few days after attending the “Fisheries for Communities” event hosted by Ecotrust Canada in Vancouver – an event that brought together commercial fishers, BC First Nations and other concerned parties to listen to evidence presented by their colleagues, scientists and fishery experts comparing the results of the improvements that have been made in Canada’s East Coast fisheries, and experiences from Alaska versus the conditions here in BC.

In BC, a system of ITQs (Individual Transferable Quotas) is in place, allowing fishing quotas to be privately traded to the highest bidder. As a result, very few independent BC fishers can now afford to buy quota of their own, so in order to fish they must lease quota from companies and individuals wealthy enough to buy. Lease prices are commensurately high meaning that, assuming fish prices remain stable, an operator will fish the first 85% of their leased quota simply to pay off the lease, with the remaining 15% for them to cover their other expenses and finally, to make a profit. But fish prices do not remain stable, they can fluctuate wildly. This results in extraordinary pressure on operators to maximize their capacity and the very real risk of fishing a whole quota without ever making any money. Even worse, in a poor season it may not even be possible to fill the leased quota, in which case an operator can easily end up losing money to the leaseholder.

Dyhia puts it simply – “The ITQ system in BC is not working; it’s failing.”

The Fisheries for Communities event was remarkable for the level of consensus from all in the room – consensus in support of a move away from the current free market in fishing quotas that is pricing locals out of business and towards an emphasis on supporting local owner-operators for the good of coastal communities, First Nations, the BC economy and the health of the ocean.

Ownership Leads to Stewardship – The Owner-Operator Principle

Dyhia’s view, based on her own observations and research was very much in line with this. But she goes further and emphasizes that the principle of supporting a healthy economic climate for owner-operators really is the main thing and the local stewardship that it promotes is more effective and cost-efficient, as long as the people involved understand that the fishing rights are their own.

I put it to her that future legislation should include an explicit link between Ownership and Stewardship in the regulations – some kind of contractual link between obligations to limited and non-destructive fishing practices to available quota. She told me that no such link is necessary – that the evidence of her own experience is that as long as you stand by the owner-operator principle – the practice of ensuring that a large proportion of fleets are comprised by local fishers who own their own boats and their own rights to fishing quota – what you get is genuine ocean stewardship – compliance with quotas, accurate reporting, and an openness to vessel tracking.

When the subject moved on to quota enforcement she maintains that the system in BC is “bad,” largely because cutbacks to Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) budgets have forced the cost of monitoring onto operators, creating negative impact in two ways.

Firstly, monitoring systems are expensive – according to Dyhia up to $7,000 every time the vessel leaves the dock – and different monitoring systems are required depending on the target catch, discouraging catch diversification – an agreed upon element of progressive fisheries management.

Secondly, if the monitoring equipment breaks while fishing is underway, the operator must cease fishing immediately, abandon their gear in the water and return to port, where, they are required to contact a DFO officer and explain their situation, although that may not always be possible.

“The sense of property is what creates stewardship”

It is a measure of the power of the owner-operator principle in her eyes that its proper implementation would be enough to make BC’s “contentious and twisted” quota enforcement system adequate – barely.

According to Dyhia, her research indicates that the natural incentives that local owner-operators have to maintain the future of the fishery provides the other half of the enforcement picture – respect the right of coastal communities to fish their area and they will provide more (and more determined) monitoring than the government ever could, and, importantly, include local knowledge gained from hundreds of years of experience fishing in that place. [After all, we are moving to “co-management everywhere else in the world, why not in BC?]

“The sense of property is what creates stewardship” she says.

Further, she sees it as a human rights issue, and yes, an ecological one too. She points out that efforts to impose fishing regulations often impact the smallest boats that provide the most benefit to local communities and have a tiny impact on fish stocks in comparison to large-scale industrial fishing, denying the ocean of adequate protection and local communities of a vital source of food and income.

In other words, you get far fewer boats but much more damage.

The good news is that we have an example of how to do things differently right here in Canada – ITQs have been rolled back in Canada’s East Coast fisheries, the owner-operator principle supported, and the data is in. According to the experts who presented at Fisheries for Communities the fishing industry in the Maritimes is thriving and doing so in a way that local communities are reaping the benefit in the shape of increased salaries and young people entering the business, while in BC the opposite is true.

It doesn’t have to be this way – it’s a situation that has been created by poor market design. And it can be corrected by changes to fisheries legislation.

ITQs a "Disaster" – But an Opportunity for Change Exists.

I was struck by Dyhia’s clarity of vision. She and her colleagues at Ecotrust Canada, and others like them, in conjunction with commercial fishers and members of coastal communities have done the research and have come to a conclusion – improve data collection and understanding of what is happening under the surface of our oceans by all means, simplify monitoring and relieve fishers of the cost of monitoring – and Tax the corporate side – with tax revenues flowing towards paying for monitoring if necessary, but most importantly, support coastal communities in their stewardship of the oceans by supporting local owner operators and their ability to access quota.

Unlike some in coastal communities, she is not against Canadian companies and wealthy Canadians from owning quota because she is willing to accept that there is some argument that this still benefits the Canadian economy, as long as a large proportion of quota is reserved for owner-operators. She is against foreign ownership of Canadian fishing quota because it becomes much more difficult to regulate them and know what illegal activity they may be involved in outside of Canada’s jurisdiction.

Overall, Dyhia’s view regarding ITQs is this – all economic systems are a system of incentives and disincentives – but they have to include all the factors that impact development and the math used to justify ITQs simply doesn’t do that. Her polite description of the actual impact of ITQs in Canada and the world over? 

“A disaster.”

There is a movement to change this legislation backed by Dyhia's colleagues at Ecotrust Canada and driven by the voices of commercial fishers and First Nations communities up and down the coast – a real chance that progress can be made – its an important issue affecting the health and prosperity of everyone in BC – with luck the opportunity will not be squandered.