It pays to explore in times of uncertainty

A study the antifragile crowd, aka Taleb would probably love~ctm

To explore or exploit? Fishing vessel records show trade-offs

University of California – Davis

When making choices, people tend either to go with what they know or try something new. We experience this trade-off every day, whether choosing a route to work or buying breakfast cereal. But does one strategy have an advantage over another? Researchers decided to examine this question by looking at fishing boat captains, who face this choice again and again when deciding where to fish.

To find out which strategy leads to greater success in the real world, scientists from the University of California, Davis, and their coauthors examined 540,000 fishing vessel position records from nearly 2,500 commercial fishing trips in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, along with their revenues. The results are published today in the journal Nature Communications.

“It looks like exploration pays off in the face of uncertainty,” said co-leading author Shay O’Farrell, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Professor James Sanchirico from the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy. “This is particularly important in the context of global environmental change, when disturbances such as storms and droughts are predicted to increase.”


The study found that some vessels consistently explore new territory more than others and invest more time and resources into sampling new places to fish. In times of stability, exploratory vessels performed no better or worse on average than vessels that stuck with consistency.

“In relatively stable environments, we would expect that any gains from switching behaviors would usually go away, otherwise vessels would be changing how they fish,” Sanchirico said.

But when boats were suddenly forced to fish elsewhere during a 2009 closure of popular fishing grounds in the Gulf, those with a history of exploration experienced significantly less impact from the disruption. That may be because the boat captains could draw from their history of exploration to select new grounds.

O’Farrell suggests the findings may hold lessons for times of uncertainty.

“One way in which we can future-proof our livelihoods is by exploring new options,” O’Farrell said. “That way, if our current options become unavailable or less attractive in the future, we can fall back on our knowledge of alternatives. Sharing our knowledge could make us even more resilient still, as we can draw from a larger pool of experience.”


The study’s co-leading authors also include Sanchirico of the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute and the nonprofit Resources for the Future, and Orr Spiegel of Tel Aviv University. Additional co-authors include Maxime Depalle from UC Davis, Alan Haynie of NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center, Steven Murawski of University of South Florida, Larry Perruso of NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center, and Andrew Strelcheck of NOAA Southeast Regional Office.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation (Coastal SEES Grant) and the National Academy of Sciences (Gulf Research Program Data Synthesis Grant).

From EurekAlert!

43 thoughts on “It pays to explore in times of uncertainty

  1. ..I had to look up the definition of “antifragile” ! …..Even my “spellcheck” didn’t know ! lol
    Great post CTM

    • Were you successful?

      Likely the most concise definition is the title of the book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. The index entry ‘defined’ (page 12) is more than a page long.

  2. The Moral of this story: When Governments intercede ie. a 2009 closure of popular fishing grounds in the Gulf. Then business and commerce and the individuals working in said commerce suffer and their livelihoods are adversely affected.

  3. Exploring new options takes resources.
    Wasting resources on a power source that we already know can’t work limits our future options.

  4. This is why we need conservatives and liberals. Conservatives keep things going and liberals try new stuff for when the old ways aren’t effective any more. The challenge is to keep the liberals from breaking things in the mean time.

    • The liberals actually go back to ideas whose outcomes are already well-known: socialism, for example.

      • Fully agree.

        Marxism has been tried. It doesn’t need to be tried again.

        If it weren’t for the conservatives, the liberals would immediately drive western civilization into the ditch.

        • Jordan Peterson uses an analogy of society moving along a narrow mountain ledge to describe the need for Democracies to balance political partisan extremes between Conservative and Statist/ socialist policies over time. And in fact they do seemingly alternate majority votes favouring one party line followed by the other.

          Peterson points out that extremes of Conservative policy based on concepts such as Individual Liberty, competency and meritocratic social and economic hierarchies tend toward economic inequality and political authoritarianism in which a disproportion of wealth, status, power, and recognition accrues to a relatively small minority (based on Pareto Distribution of 20% of people gain 80% of the benefits) with a substantial minority of the population bereft at the bottom of society (for whatever the personal or societal reasons).

          The left refers to the Conservative meritocratic distribution of wealth as inhumane, unjust and oppressive akin to slavery.

          The extremes of Leftist Statism/Democratic Socialism based on ideas of Egalitarianism, Fairness, and economic equality tend toward Totalitarianism as seen over and over again in the 20th C as a result of Marxist Leninist revolutions around the world with the complete loss of individual economic liberty and freedom of speech, inalienable right to one’s life and property protected by the rule of law.

          The average Leftist today has never read The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn and live in a dream scape of infinite imagined benefits of socialist central planning and collectivism having never been exposed to its horrors or its economic night mares.

          So the electorate of democratic societies walking this narrow ledge wishing to avoid veering to far to the right or left and falling into the abyss on either side alternately vote their pocket books and then their hearts to dramatically change course.

      • And windmills.
        Generally, windmills do not work; there are a few remote locations where a windmill d o e s add something – but those locations are rare.
        Big bird blenders batter bats.
        Has anyone ever published a simple energy-in/energy-out computation for a ‘standard’ on-shore windmill, covering the manufacture, transportation, construction, connection, maintenance, and removal [remediation]? Even allowing for the sales-folks’ ‘twenty-year life’ . . .

        Auto, always admiring attractive alliteration.

      • Rent controls. Terrible idea, always caused exactly the same problems, yet trotted out time and again.

    • The notion that conservatives are afraid of new ideas is one of the strange notions that liberals have clung to for ages.

      The only difference between liberals and conservatives when it comes to new ideas is that conservatives insist on evidence that the new idea actually is better than what we already have.

      • Strange that the Founding Fathers of the US, the first colonies to break away from their mother country for the sake of the idea that Government’s purpose should be to defend individual liberty (a very liberal idea) would now be considered conservative.

    • I have yet to see a modern “Liberal” come up with a new idea.

      More redistribution, more government spending, more regulation, more centralised control, more planning…

      And many “Liberals” spend their energies banning new stuff these days – pesticides, technologies, drugs..

  5. “When making choices, people tend either to go with what they know or try something new.”

    It’ll rain or go dark before the night’s out !

    • Greg: “It’ll rain or go dark before the night’s out !”

      Apply for a grant and write that one up, Greg. You can cite the fishing study in support of your findings.

  6. The kind of people who will explore new areas are those who are sceptical of the “consensus”.

    The kind of people who do not follow the herd over the cliff, are the ones who are sceptical of the herd “consensus”.

    There’s a reason why sceptic genes survive and flourish: it’s because when the rest of the human herd are following each other to evolutionary oblivion, the sceptics will be finding their own path to survival.

  7. Oh for goodness sake!m Yes another a big data dredge that investigates a question for numerical answers without any follow-up to ground-truth their result. Using very sophisticated data techniques and data bases on fishing vessel locations and reported catches, they arrive at a social science answer.

    Not only did they not harm any fishermen in this study — they did not speak to a single real commercial fisherman during the course of the study..

  8. Isn’t the bigger question – how do the decisions of fishing boat captains relate to other areas of endeavour? I cannot help but feel that this was an exercise where the participants preferred to be nicely ensconced in their warm offices where they could draw on existing recorded responses from the fishing boats, rather than get out in the field and do some fieldwork. Didn’t they want to investigate the purchase of breakfast cereals, or the choosing of driving routes? Or even, perish the thought, go out on a few cold smelly fishing boats and talk to the crew!

  9. “people tend either to go with what they know or try something new.”


    (BTW, as someone who has a PhD (Carnegie Mellon) in Risk Analysis and 30+ years experience, I regret to inform the author that Taleb’s “Black Swans”, etc. books have been found to be largely wrong from both an Economics POV as well as a psychological POV).

    • “… people tend either to go with what they know or try something new.”

      I guess I missed something. Are there any other choices besides these two?

      • I suppose we’d all be better off if those who know nothing did nothing but they just keep “sticking” around and won’t shut up!

    • Learn Taleb’s lesson of Fat Tony, the butcher. Then stand in the pit and practice (or the control room).

  10. The comparison of climate “environmental change”) with the fishing industry is just plain retarded.

  11. I liked this one better (both OPEN ACCESS) , but then there was the one about how soap bubbles freeze.
    Vertical redistribution of salt and layered changes in global ocean salinity
    “Because the existing salinity measurements are mostly limited to the surface and upper ocean, the ECCO estimates of salinity in the deep and abyssal oceans are mainly constrained by repeated hydrographic measurements,……” Sounds familiar.
    Having worked with Gulf of Mexico commercial fishermen, I was disappointed that it only was about longline reef fishing off Florida. I once put an autistic student on a commercial shrimper. They treated him kindly, but eventually it didn’t work out. They do have to keep a sharp open mind, ocean always tricky as are the regulators. Good place to try out students though, should send more modelers.

    This is a more interesting short story about longline commercial shark fishing for vitamin A during WWII. Springer, S. 1963. Field observations on large sharks of the Florida-Caribbean region. pp. 95-113, In Gilbert, P. W. Sharks and Survival. D. C. Heath & Co. He learned about accessory populations, may not be understood much today and he didn’t use an entropy metric.

  12. This is really about ‘the survival of the most adaptable’; a fundamental concept in all of life science. It is mundane that this study supports the obvious concept.

    What is not mundane is that Climate Change policy ignores this concept! Adaptability is not considered to be a valid response to our potentially changing environment, even though adaptability has been the go-to response for hundreds of millions of years!

    Instead, we are told that we must stop the Earth from changing by controlling the behaviours of ever human on the planet! The one and only response to climate change being proposed contains to impossible things in a 15 word sentence. It is impossible to stop the Earth from changing, and it is impossible to control the behaviours of every human on the planet. Yet, that is what we are told we must do!

    The most successful strategy life has ever produced is not even on the table, because the issue isn’t really about climate change. It’s about power and control.

  13. “… people tend either to go with what they know or try something new.”

    The statement reminds me of the old joke about the guy who only drank when he was alone or with somebody. People laughed because it was so stupid!

  14. Leave our fish alone.
    They need to keep their fingers.

    (Borrowed from “anon”). Geoff S

  15. It’s not a new question or answer, and crops up across many disciplines.

    A search for new compounds that successfully bind to a drug-target is always faced with the dilemma of something close to what is tried and tested, or something more likely to fail completely but might hit the jackpot. Simple “hill climbing” still works distressingly often for those of us who think we are smarter than the crowd.

    The usual [snip] will, of course, find a way to bring global warming into the discussion.

    • “[snip]”

      Sorry about that, mods. I was just trying to use a more anatomically precise version of the vernacular epithet.

  16. The mineral industry has a clear stage of exploration, followed by another stage of mining (if all has gone well). It provides a good test bed for the thesis above.
    In times of financial strain, there can be a choice to reduce funding of either exploration or mining. Exploration is the soft option because it’s returns are uncertain and typically way off into the future. The mining stage is providing immediate returns to help maintain solvency. It is a hard choice, because without exploration, there is no future.
    Over about 30 years of Australian experience, in summary, those companies that maintained exploration by preference had rather better long term outcomes. There are many extraneous variables to consider so there is my subjectivity in this conclusion, but I think it is fairly compelling. What it means for authors O’Farrell et al is less clear. I would be wary of their approach because they need to draw a long bow to link fishing with global warming hypotheses. we

  17. My Android tablet replaces my “its” with “it’s” usually wrongly, creating an error that is a pet hate. Apologies for not picking it up this time, it is a slippery little devil.
    Geoff S

  18. Regurgitation of what evolutionary biologists have been saying for ever. When environments are stable, new adaptations are less valuable than when environments are changing.

    To turn it around as it is more often expressed, change drives evolution.

  19. As difficult as he is to read sometimes, we sciency types should all be familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, he is differently brilliant.

  20. “When making choices, people tend either to go with what they know or try something new.”

    This is so insightful. I am really glad we have Universities that can explain these concepts to us.

Comments are closed.