Fisheries Scientist Under Fire from Greenpeace
As I write this in late May, the World Fisheries Congress is underway in Busan, South Korea. The theme for the conference is global sustainable fisheries and safe seafood. It is also where the 2016 International Fisheries Science Prize is being awarded to Professor Ray Hilborn.
Dr. Hilborn is an eminent fisheries scientist at the University of Washington. He is well known for his work on fisheries sustainability, management and policy issues in the US and globally. He is also an outspoken – and sometimes controversial – defender that effective fisheries management produces sustainable fisheries. The prize was awarded for Dr. Hilborn's 40-year career "of highly diversified research and publication in support of global fisheries science and conservation," according the conference's news release.
Over the years, Dr. Hilborn has clashed with some conservation groups and fisheries scientists about his views on the state of fisheries. He rejects the notion that global fisheries are uniformly overfished. Instead, he says, although there are overfished fisheries, many others, especially in the US and Europe, are doing well. "On average, fish stocks worldwide appear to be stable, and in the United States they are rebuilding, in many cases at a rapid rate," Dr. Hilborn wrote in a 2011 New York Times opinion piece "Let Us Eat Fish."
Labeled as an "overfishing denier", he recently came under fire from Greenpeace, one of the groups Dr. Hilborn has criticized in the past for their gloom-and-doom portrayal of global fisheries. On May 11, 2016, John Hocevar, the Ocean Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA, sent a letter of complaint to Dr. Ana Mari Cauce, the President of the University of Washington.
"Dr. Hilborn has repeatedly failed to meet proper disclosure standards in his published research," Hocevar wrote. The letter states that since 2003, Dr. Hilborn received $3.56 million in research funds from 69 fishing and seafood industries, including Washington state-based PeterPan Seafoods and Pacific seafood Processors. "Many other groups from which Dr. Hilborn received funds are consultant firms and front groups that represent the fishing industry."
"We ask that UW conduct its own investigation into this matter and act to address the lack of disclosure of these funds in Dr. Hilborn's scientific and popular publications and the conflicts of interest this poses for him."
Industry funding of scientific research is fairly common. It becomes an issue when funding sources bias scientists' data interpretations and research conclusions. There are publicized examples of these biases from the scientists backed by the food, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries.
"I, like all reputable scientists, take conflict of interest seriously," Dr. Hilborn wrote in his response letter a few days later. "This is one reason we acknowledge all funders of the research work discussed in each paper at the end of the document."
"Greenpeace is unable to attack the science I and my collaborators do. Instead of focusing on the science, Greenpeace has alleged that I failed to disclose 'large amounts of money from the fishing industry and other corporate interests.'"
Funding for Dr. Hilborn's work comes from a variety of sources, including other environmental nonprofit organizations, government agencies and foundations. "In fact," he concludes, "it is in the financial interest of fishing communities and industries to find solutions that are sustainable and provide for healthy stocks into the future. And funding from these groups should be considered part of a inclusive, transparent and honest research process."