"Creating the "Tragedy of the Commons Fishing Simulation Game"

For about 25 years, I taught a rather large lecture format course in Introductory Oceanography at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When I discovered Dennis Meadows' Fishbanks game, I loved it. It was simple and direct in its message that overfishing is almost inevitable when many commercial interests are exploiting the fisheries for profit. Meadows developed Fishbanks during the collapse of the Cod fisheries and used it to help fishermen and policy makers understand management issues and how this resource might be managed in the future. It was a classic example of "The Tragedy of the Commons," a term coined by Garrett Hardin, who determined that even though all parties have the best of intentions, a shared resource, exploited for profit, will inevitable become depleted.

I used Fishbanks in the weekly oceanography lab. Teaching assistants ran the lab sessions. The actual running of the game presented some challenges. One was the necessity of a single "game manager" to enter the decisions of the fishing teams. This was usually the TA, and students became restless during that time. Also, students found it difficult to predict the results of their decisions, or explore various management strategies. There wasn't time to play the game multiple times. I modified the Fishbanks game so that a single player could play against two virtual fishing companies under each of 4 different management scenarios.

The management scenarios included in the game are No Limits, Limited Fishing Season, Marine Reserves, and Catch Shares. I also added a prediction tool that allows students to predict their profit and health of the fish population under each of the scenarios, and at various fishing efforts. The prediction tool is used to set the management parameters (like fishing effort, or length of fishing season or percentage of the fishing grounds set aside for reserves, etc.) Pre and post questions for each scenario invite the student to put down his or her thoughts during the game. The results of the game are emailed to the student's instructor. I really like this approach because it gives students the tools to optimize their fishing effort for different scenarios and to compete against two companies with different levels of aggressiveness in their fishing goals.

The game makes a great homework assignment. It could be played in a lab setting, with teams of students playing each scenario, and follow-up discussions of the results. This would actively engage all students and a lively discussion about pros and cons of each management scenario are likely to result. Alternatively, the standard Fishbanks game could be played during the lab session, with the single player version assigned for homework.

Strengths of the "Tragedy of the Commons Fishing Simulation Game"

  • Can be played as an individual homework assignment
  • No time limitations
  • Different management scenarios are experienced
  • Students gain a deep understanding of management options through profit and population modeling.