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The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Paper claiming American IUU fishing finally retracted

A paper claiming that a large portion of American-caught pollock, salmon, and crab are caught illegally was finally retracted after a year-long dispute by NOAA, industry, and outside scientists. The original paper built a theoretical trade model between the U.S. and Japan and concluded that 15–22% of pollock, 10–20% of salmon, and 10–18% of crabs exported from Alaskan fisheries to Japan come from IUU fisheries.

This was quite a ridiculous claim as Alaskan fisheries are probably the best-managed fisheries in the world. Further, Alaskan pollock has 100% observer coverage, meaning there is a NOAA fisheries observer on every boat enforcing compliance—it is almost impossible to get away with illegal fishing in Alaska.

Shortly after publication, the head of NOAA Fisheries, Chris Oliver, sent a letter to the publisher demanding a retraction. Many other scientists and those in the Alaskan seafood industry also felt a retraction was necessary as the reputation of U.S. seafood management and industry was unfairly disparaged by poor science. We chronicled the reaction shortly after the paper came out in this post.

So what happened with the science to be so wrong? Essentially, the trade model was theoretical instead of relying on available data. NOAA keeps detailed statistics on catch, processing, and exports so it was a strange decision to use a theoretical model when a hard model would be more accurate. Two major points of contention in the model were:

  1. What the researchers called “unreported artisanal catch of pollock.” As far as we know, there is practically zero artisanal catch of pollock.
  2. The theoretical model equated discards (unwanted fish thrown back) to IUU fishing as a major part of the IUU estimate.

The standards of peer review in the journal that published the paper have been called into question by a number of scientists after this mishap. What is most concerning is that the model was based on a previous one published by the same authors—how accurate is the original model if this one was so wrong?

Unfortunately, this was yet another example of misleading methodology seeping into mainstream media and/or policy. We’ve covered several stories where data and methodology did not line up with conclusions, e.g. the ‘footprint of fishing’ controversy, and Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign.

Now, after a year of outcry, the paper has been retracted and the authors say a new version has been submitted with more correct numbers. We’ll see what happens with the peer review process.

Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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