The occupational Hazard of being a fisheries and social scientist/ economist: obtaining confidential information

By Dyhia Belhabib

I gave a class recently at the University of British Columbia as a guest lecturer. As I showed up thinking that I was going to talk about what the professor had sent me, I realized I needed a presentation of my own, 15 minutes before the actual presentation. Thankfully, and even if I do not like to recycle presentations, I used the latest presentation I had prepared for the MAVA strategic workshop. 

The presentation was about the economics of illegal fishing, and the findings were novel. In fact two papers were the main topic of that presentation, one that was published 2 weeks ago, and one that is still not submitted. The one that was published in Frontiers was on fishing crimes in West Africa, a region plagued by illegal fishing. was featured on the front page of the New York Times, and again by the editorial board, and featured on TV. As I finished the presentation, and welcomed students’ questions, I was asked how, as a researcher working on something this “opaque”, I could deal with obtaining sensitive information. The student called it “an occupational hazard” which I though was a great question.

How does one obtain data on the number and the names of vessels that fished illegally, knowing that people will be reluctant to share them - your main purpose being to publish the information and make waves out of it? 

My answer had to be straight forward and it was: “you manage to have insiders, gain their trust, and also share information with them whenever you have it as well”. 

But is that enough? Certainly not!

I am (Dr.) Dyhia Belhabib and I look like this – well kinda… not exactly, but let’s say this is me:


I am quoting syndromes based on my own experiences. This is not aimed at generalizing my experiences to a whole population of people and situations, but merely sharing a few lessons I have learned along the way.


Scenario 1: “The blue eyes syndrome”


Sometimes, it is easier for outsiders to have information than insiders. Sometimes, it is all about the looks – Blond, in my experience, works better. Sometimes, it is all about the name, and – John or Leah, in my experience, work better. I call this the “blue eyes syndrome” that seems to be prevalent, to my great regret, in developing countries – maybe not all of them. 

A person suffers from the “blue eyes syndrome” when the person shares information with a Western outsider, that has the “stereotyped” looks of Scandinavians, or a combination of other attributes (origin, language, name connotation, etc.), and the person is not sharing the same information with you, when nothing else is different. 


A striking example of this syndrome is when I asked for the thesis of a professor of marine biology in Algeria. Now, you have to understand that, in Algeria, there is a culture of not sharing one’s work, after it was published for fear of plagiarism. It does not mean that plagiarism is very common there, but it is how the former generation set the rules. I asked this professor to share his thesis with me so that I could finish the reconstruction of shark catches in Algeria.