Even in fish science, payers may sway players

Co-authored by John Hocevar

Please see also the follow-up to this post, responding to some of the criticism and further explaining Carl’s perspective.

The people of Seattle enjoy a closer-than-average relationship with the sea, fishing, and ocean science. Of course Seattle is home to a world famous fish market; after all, seafood, fish, and fishing are part of Seattle’s DNA. The city is the home port for Bering Sea factory trawlers and home to the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences.

Seattle's own Pike Place Fish Market. Credit: Daniel Schwen
Seattle’s own Pike Place Fish Market. Credit: Daniel Schwen

Scientists are often first to ring alarms about what is happening big-picture. So by now we’ve all heard of global overfishing; of an ocean already acidic enough from fossil-fuel fallout that seawater is now deadly to oyster larvae, threatening to kill coral reefs; of the plastics whose rapidly mounting total weight is approaching the mass of all the fish in the sea; of the food-stressed resident orcas who now seem too polluted to bear female young….

It’s a very good thing that scientists have shown us that most big fish are down to less than 10 percent of pre-fishing numbers, and that many of the world’s commercial fisheries will run out of fish in about 30 years unless we turn the downward trends around. This distressing résume, threatening as it is to what we love about life, summons our concern and all our best creative efforts. And indeed, in response to these problems the U.S. has in the last decade or so become an energized world leader in halting overfishing, in the number of recovering fish populations, and in protecting some areas as no-take reserves where fish and other creatures can live and spawn (the ocean can no longer be just one retail store; we need some factories).

But one outspoken UW fisheries biologist, Ray Hilborn, claims we don’t need marine sanctuaries. Commercial fishing isn’t a problem. The regulations were just fine as they were. Enviro-meddling do-gooders don’t know—.

Ray Hilborn, UW fisheries biologist. Credit: Ray Hilborn
Ray Hilborn, UW fisheries biologist. Credit: Ray Hilborn

How is it that one university scientist is so deeply committed to failed fisheries concepts? Why so critical of his most prominent colleagues? So dismissive of their work as to write that the world’s top two science journals—Science and Nature—have a peer review process that’s “totally failed” and that those top journals “clearly publish articles on fisheries not for their scientific merit, but for their publicity value.” How is that?

Here’s how: Through Public Records Act requests initiated by Greenpeace, it appears that Dr. Hilborn has received $3.56 million in industry research funding since 2003 as well as serving as a consultant to numerous seafood businesses and trade associations—we’re talking everything from fishery lobbying coalitions to ExxonMobil. This news made us say, “Now it all makes sense.” In a letter to UW, Greenpeace outlined concerns over this funding and called for an investigation. Hilborn has refrained from asserting that the Public Records Act has “totally failed;” he has merely responded that it would be impractical for him to disclose all his funding sources all the time. Of course it would.

It is, certainly, healthy for people to honestly disagree, even vigorously. It’s fine for Hilborn to disagree with prominent peers. The problem isn’t that Hilborn has been a polarizing figure, or that at times the stridence of his public advocacy has seemed out of step with his own portrayals of himself as better, more systematic, cautious, conservative, and methodical. A central charge is that Hilborn has failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest appropriately in scientific journals.

Why is this important? Journals require disclosure because studies have shown that funding does influence research, even when scientists think they are immune to that effect. It is not up to scientists to determine whether conflict of interest is biasing their work, it is up to peer reviewers, editors, colleagues, and reporters. If conflict of interest remains hidden, bias may remain hidden.

Many scientists, conservationists and policy makers who’ve been perplexed and vexed by Hilborn’s industry-friendly advocacy in debates about reauthorizing our federal fisheries law, or California’s process to create a network of marine protected areas, or seafood sustainability, have been surprised—but maybe not too surprised—to learn the extent of Hilborn’s industry ties.

Bigeyes and red snappers at a fish market in Palau. Credit: Carl Safina
Bigeyes and red snappers at a fish market in Palau. Credit: Carl Safina

Industry has often bought influence over science by funding and amplifying the voices of those they agree with. Does tobacco cause cancer? Are genetically engineered crops bad? Are your pharmaceuticals safe? Is climate change real and human-caused? It is not impossible for industry-funded researchers to make important contributions to these topics, but disclosing funding is a fundamental part of scientific ethics.

It’s certainly possible that Hilborn comes by his opinions honestly. But disclosure matters. Debates about the future of our ocean must be based on open science, not talking points funded and amplified by for-profit industries whose actions and influence are at the root of widely recognized problems. Such relationships must not remain veiled. Everyone deserves to draw their own conclusions about who wins any scientific debate or any game of bluff. But the only way that can happen is if all cards are on the table.
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John Hocevar is the Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA. Greenpeace has been working to protect people and planet since 1971. The organization does not accept corporate or government funding.

Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean, is the Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, where he co-chairs the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and runs the not-for-profit Safina Center. His book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, about free-living orcas and others, will soon be out in paperback.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.