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.​​