The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Ray Hilborn on the role of industry funding

It is true that my research program receives funding from the fishing industry. Industry funding makes up about 22% of my total funding, while I receive similar amounts from environmental foundations, Universities, and private individuals unassociated with the fishing industry. In addition, I receive funding from environmental NGOs, including over the years the National Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Pew Institute for Ocean Science.

Ray Hilborn's research funding - a breakdown by source.

Here is my response to those who say this means you should not believe what I say about fisheries:

Science is collaborative, not individual

When I say that all fish will not be gone by 2048 or that fish stocks are increasing in abundance in much of the world, these are not personal opinions, but results of scientific papers authored by a large group of people, each of whom stands by the results of the paper.

When the claim that “all fish would be gone by 2048” came out, the lead author on that paper, Boris Worm, and I agreed to meet together to understand why we had different perspectives. We organized a group of about 20 scientists and looked at trends in fish stock abundance where it was measured and found no sign that these stocks were generally declining. In 2009, we published a paper in Science Magazine showing this, and the lead author was Boris Worm. It is absurd to say that because I, one of 21 authors, had received funding from the fishing industry this work was biased.

I was the first author on the 2020 follow-up paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Effective fisheries management instrumental in improving fish stock status, that showed that fish stocks were actually increasing in much of the world, but this paper had 23 authors, including professors from several different universities, an employee of The Nature Conservancy, a member of the Board of Directors of The Nature Conservancy, a member of the Board of Directors of Environmental Defense, and an employee of the Wildlife Conservation Society all of whom stand by our conclusions. It is not my work, but group work, and where I get some of my funding is largely irrelevant.

Almost every paper with my name on it in fisheries has a range of authors and many of them have at least one author representing conservation organizations.

Look at the data and what was actually done

My research is not cloaked in secrecy. In every research paper I have been a part of, we tell the reader what data we used and how we used it to get the results we did. This is the methodology section. We describe our data and methods so you, or anyone else, can redo and/or verify the analysis.

This is an important part of science. I have criticized the methodology section of others before, and others have criticized mine—this is what makes information evolve closer to truth. Unfortunately, that part of science gets lost in press releases and hyperbolic headlines, which was a large reason I started this website—to explain the methodology sections of important fisheries papers to give the public (and journalists) proper context. For example, we have been highly critical of Oceana’s seafood fraud methodology on this website, but we appreciate the work they do and gave them a platform to respond to our criticism.

Disbelieving the science makes you a science denier

For anyone to continue to argue that fish stocks are declining around the world and will be largely gone within decades is to deny a gigantic body of science. Denying facts and science is dangerous—it leads to real harm like the slow response to climate change and the anti-vaccine movement. It destroys informed decision-making, which is how I believe governments and society should run. These kinds of conspiracy theories (or should I say Seaspiracy) all start with undermining expertise. Dismissing the science I have done with hundreds of other scientists and organizations is the start of a slippery-slope. Again, look at methodology sections and do the analysis yourself. If you find any errors, please let me know.

The industry has a bigger stake in sustainability than anyone else and they should pay for research

No one has a bigger stake in sustaining fisheries than the fishing industry. Companies in Alaska have started replacing their larger vessels, at a typical cost of $100 million. They need the resource to be sustained over decades, otherwise they go broke. Who else has such a direct financial stake in sustaining fisheries? Certainly there are fisheries around the world that are poorly managed and the fishing industry in those areas is not behaving responsibly—but those are not the fishing companies funding research. All of the research funding University of Washington gets from fishing industries are from companies working in sustainable fisheries with good management, and all the incentives are for the industry to support good management. Funding from the fishing industry comes mostly from U.S. companies, where fisheries are managed better than anywhere else in the world. I also receive some from companies based in Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa, and the EU—again, all places with well above-average fishery management. Responsible members of the fishing industry pay for science to help manage the resources they depend on.

The Greenpeace charges were groundless

A few years ago, Greenpeace claimed that I received $3 million from the fishing industry. This money was given to the University of Washington, not personally to me, and it had to be spent in accordance with University policies, for salaries of students and employees, and for fieldwork. Greenpeace also said that I had failed to declare industry funding for scientific papers related to the fishing industry. These charges were investigated by the University of Washington, Science Magazine, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the PLOS One journal. In all cases the charges were found groundless. Where industry funds had been used for a paper, it had been declared; this was true for roughly 30 scientific papers.

The PLOS One example is interesting. The 2012 paper “Eco-Label Conveys Reliable Information on Fish Stock Health to Seafood Consumers” examined the relative status of stocks that were certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as well managed compared to other fish stocks that were not certified, and showed that the MSC certified stocks were in much better shape than those not certified. I was one of 21 authors and the first author was an employee of the Marine Stewardship Council. When we submitted the paper, we declared that he and some other authors, also employed by MSC, had a conflict of interest. The journal came back and said that could not be a conflict of interest because MSC was a non-profit, and there could not be a conflict of interest for an employee of a non-profit.

But when the Greenpeace issue came up, the journal decided that several of us, who had received consulting fees from independent assessment bodies as part of the MSC certification process for individual stocks, probably should have declared that as a conflict of interest, and an addendum to the paper was made.

Greenpeace lost a lot of credibility in the scientific world. From noted scientist and conservationist, Andrew Thaler:

Greenpeace has thrown away a lot of good will in the marine conservation community for a quixotic campaign. It is unclear what their objective here is, other than creating some noise and thunder in the fisheries world.

Extremism is on the rise and threatens science

Unlike Greenpeace, the Seaspiracy film did have a clear objective: to get you to stop eating fish. The case it makes is based on misinformation and lies. The filmmakers, the Sea Shepherd employees, Sylvia Earle and George Monbiot are all extremists—they and the film should be dismissed as such. Undermining science should not be an acceptable way to advocate for a cause.

Picture of Ray Hilborn

Ray Hilborn

Ray Hilborn is a Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington specializing in natural resource management and conservation. He authored several books including “Ocean Recovery: a sustainable future for global fisheries? (with Ulrike Hilborn) in 2019, “Overfishing: what everyone needs to know” (with Ulrike Hilborn) in 2012, “Quantitative fisheries stock assessment” with Carl Walters in 1992, and “The Ecological Detective: confronting models with data” with Marc Mangel, in 1997 and has published over 300 peer reviewed articles. He has received the Volvo Environmental Prize, the American Fisheries Societies Award of Excellence, The Ecological Society of America’s Sustainability Science Award, and the International Fisheries Science Prize. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Washington State Academy of Sciences, and the American Fisheries Society.

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