The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Retraction drama continues

Last year we wrote about a paper by Pramod, Pitcher, and Mantha that created quite a controversy in the fisheries world. The paper, published in the journal Marine Policy, used a supply chain model to claim that 15–22% of Alaska pollock, 10–20% of Alaska salmon, and 10–18% of Alaska crabs by volume exported from the U.S. to Japan are of illegal origin. These claims of IUU fishing seemed suspect to several experts since U.S. fisheries, particularly Alaska fisheries, are some of the best managed and well-enforced in the world. Here’s a brief timeline of what has happened since the original publication:

  • Chris Oliver, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, sent a letter to the editor of Marine Policy pointing out the paper’s flaws.
  • A group of scientists familiar with Alaskan fisheries also sent a letter to the editor pointing out that none of the cited references provided in the paper had estimates of IUU fishing rates—it was unclear where the authors derived their numbers from. Further, the sources of IUU listed in the Pramod paper such as illegal discards and unreported recreational catch would not end up as IUU fish sold in Japan.
  • After a year, Marine Policy formally retracted the paper. This is the first time (to our knowledge), that a paper on fisheries has been retracted, though retraction is increasingly common in other scientific fields.
  • Elsevier, the company overseeing Marine Policy, has a strict retraction policy—the paper in question must be demonstrably fraudulent. The editors of Marine Policy thus agreed with the scientists that the IUU estimates were fraudulent.
  • Pramod et al. later re-submitted their paper with the exact same estimates, but claimed that most of the IUU was not occurring in Alaska, but instead IUU fish from other countries were mixed in with legally caught Alaskan products before being sold in Japan.
  • The new submission was accepted for publication, but it is unclear if the peer-reviewers knew that there was an earlier version that had been retracted.
  • A critique of the paper, authored by a range of co-authors familiar with Alaska Pollock and IUU fishing (including the scientist and Chris Oliver, and David Agnew one of the foremost experts in IUU fishing) was submitted, has now been published and is linked here Pramod et al. methods to estimate IUU are not credible.

Estimates of illegal and unreported seafood imports to Japan

The retracted Pramod et al. paper maintained that fish imported to Japan from the U.S. had high levels of IUU catch, but changed their claim in the revised paper saying that the IUU fish did originated in the U.S. Pramod et al. still claim that 15-22% of fish labelled Pollock from Alaskan arriving in Japan is IUU, but that only 2% is the result of illegal fishing in the U.S., the rest of the IUU estimate comes from mixing in illegally caught fish from other countries with pollock once it has left Alaska. However, the original paper had no mention of the mixing in of illegally caught fish. The revised paper still lists illegal discards (Alaska-based) is still listed as the first source of IUU Alaskan pollock arriving in Japan.

The IUU estimates come from 2 confidential informants. Information from interviews with those 2 people were then applied to a supply chain model meant to extrapolate their data leading to the 15-22% estimate. Many prominent fishery scientists think this estimate is still too high and totally undocumented and the methodology for estimating IUU fishing does not meet scientific standards or transparency.

Ray Hilborn, lead author of the response, explains:

The estimates in the retracted paper were based on a model that used attributes of the fishery to estimate IUU. The model did not seem to take account of the high level of observer coverage of the Alaska pollock fishery and this model seems to have been discarded between the retracted version and the new version.

The new version seems to rely primarily on confidential informant estimates of blending in IUU fish in overseas locations between Alaska and Japan. The authors provide no data on what the confidential informants said, or how they were in a position to know the information about Alaska Pollock. While the use of confidential informants is often necessary in this kind of research, there is no way that any reviewer can judge the veracity of information from the confidential informants in this paper because none is provided. We simply don’t know what the confidential informants said.

More disturbing is the total change of the “story” between the retracted version of the paper and the new version. Why was blending overseas not mentioned as a source of Alaska pollock IUU in the retracted paper? How is it that the estimates remained exactly the same between the two versions if totally different methods were used?

I have to believe that the authors were caught with totally unjustifiable estimates and methods in the retracted paper and simply changed the story to explain the numbers of the retracted paper.

I would certainly like to challenge Pramod and coauthors to answer a couple simple questions: (1) why was product blending for Alaska Pollock overseas originally mentioned in the retracted paper, and (2) how do fish discarded in Alaska end up in Japanese markets?

A retracted paper is a Big Deal

Misleading science can have major impacts on society. In fisheries, we’ve documented several cases where misleading data or poor methodology has led to widespread public misperceptions. This Pramod et al. paper has the opportunity to do the same. Before it was retracted, it was cited in 12 other peer-reviewed studies. Misleading information slowly making its way through scientific literature and public discourse is damaging for science and society. Marine Policy did well to formally retract the paper but took far too long and offered little justification for the resubmitted version. Hopefully the response is cited alongside citations of the new version of Pramod et al.

Picture of Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

Set the record straight with some of our fact-check stories that correct popular misperceptions in fisheries:

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