Changing Planet

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.
# # #
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.

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, 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.
  • Magnus Johnson

    This is a awful article. I like a lot of what Greenpeace do but in this issue they have got it wrong. Ray’s science is sound. Unable to attack that they are taking the weak person’s approach and attacking his integrity. Shameful. Ray’s response is here

    • Ray has done more than his share of attacking scientists and conservationists, and now we know part of the reason why. Ray’s response notwithstanding, there are layers here; “follow the money.”

  • Jeremy Rude

    Ray’s funding sources are far more balanced than many fishery scientists, coming from all types of sectors. If you receive money only from agenda driven philanthropy or environmental NGOs and preach that our oceans are overfished and doomed, then shouldn’t the argument follow that you are equally “swayed by payers”?

    And where exactly will “following the money” lead us to? Is it not in the industries best interest to manage fisheries sustainably? What did this investigation find or conclude? You compare this to tobacco industry advocating that it does not cause cancer? Really?

    You condemn him for being critical of other scientists and conservationists but he uses data to back up his claims, and is the first to admit that overfishing is occurring in some areas of the world and certain types of fisheries management has been successful in other areas.

    • Everyone uses data to back up their claims, yet differences of interpretation or emphasis often arise. But while Ray uses data, there are some data he doesn’t seem to like. In an editorial in Fisheries, Ray responded to some data he did not like by referring to a series of experiments as “faith based,” even though they were controlled laboratory experiments yielding measurements. Because he does not like certain studies published in Science and Nature–the world’s two top-regarded science journals–he rails that the peer review process is broken and that the journals merely want publicity. These are not examples of using data to back claims. I don’t see his reliance on data as better or worse than most university scientists.

  • Mike Orbach

    OK, let’s lay the ad hominem comments (on both sides) aside for the moment. If we had 20-30 % of the ocean completely protected (and although significant protected areas are desirable, we are far from that), the issue would still be how we regulate human behavior in the other 70-80 % of the ocean. Ray points out, correctly, that “traditional” fisheries management can in fact work to protect and recover fisheries, and provides many examples worldwide. The main issue is not in fact science, but political will to establish effective management and monitoring and enforcement systems, in both more and less fully protected areas. Sorry, Carl, but the “money issue” is a red herring, and I believe detracts from meeting our major challenges!

    • Hi Mike,
      This is a multi-layered issue. Ray has done and said a lot of things over the years, and disagreed with a lot of science done by a lot of people from various universities. While I agree that “traditional”——meaning the modern, Western, maximum-sustainable-yield approach——can work, it tends to work only under certain conditions (mostly open ocean, temperate, large-schooling fishes), and can work only where there is enough money for the kind of monitoring and enforcement necessary, which in practice means only for a small number of countries. So while I agree with you that political will is chronically lacking, it is also true that if the will was there most countries are simply too poor to monitor, patrol, or enforce enough to make that kind of management work. Moreover, though Ray is often regarded as a proponent of such “traditional” management, in 2013 testimony to Congress, Ray seemed to repudiate such fisheries management, writing:
      “the 1950s the basic principles had been well established around the general theory that…reducing fishing pressure on stocks at low abundance allows biomass to rebuild, and stock productivity will increase as the biomass increases.
      “In the last two decades, the evidence has become strong that this view of the world is incorrect, and most fish stocks experience sustained periods of good times and bad times. This is often called productivity regime shifts. …Rebuilding to former biomass may indeed be impossible unless productivity changes, regardless of reductions in fishing.”
      Such blanket statements are rather confusing, because many fish populations do indeed decline from over-exploitation and recover when fishing pressure is reduced or when large areas are set aside as no-take breeding reserves. This brings us to your final point. We cannot meet major challenges if we do not believe that fish can recover or if we believe that they are incapable of responding to reductions in fishing pressure. Clearly some do not, especially those that have been very deeply depleted. But clearly many do recover when we let them.

  • Nate Mantua

    I find this to be an extremely biased article, failing to mention the fact that Hilborn’s research funding comes from many sectors, including major foundations, government agencies, and environmental NGOs. So yes, “follow the money,” and you’ll find that it comes from many different places.
    Readers should also know that the University of Washington, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Science magazine have reviewed the accusations made by Greenpeace and repeated here and concluded that Ray HIlborn violated no rules or standards of practice.
    Hilborn was also just presented the International Fisheries Science Prize at the 2016 World Fisheries Congress that was held in Busan, South Korea (

  • Nate Mantua

    I think this is an incredibly biased and unfortunate article for failing to state the fact that Hilborn’s funding has come from a wide variety of sources, including government research programs, foundations, and environmental NGOs. So yes, “follow the money”, and you’ll find it leads you in many different directions.
    The University of Washington, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Science Magazine have all reviewed the charges Greenpeace made against Hilborn of non-disclosure and found there were no violations of University or Journal procedures.
    Readers should also know that Hilborn’s scientific contributions are widely viewed in the fisheries world as exemplary, and he was just awarded the International Fisheries Science Prize at the 2016 World Fisheries Congress, recently held in Busan, South Korea (

  • Terry Quinn

    I am appalled and shocked that anyone would attempt to tarnish the reputation of Professor Ray Hilborn, one of the most respected and productive fisheries researchers in the world. I have known Ray for over thirty years and have seen him or his work in dozens of venues. His honesty, creativity, and ability to discuss complex and controversial subjects are hallmarks that have transformed the fisheries science community. Most university professors have annual contracts of 9 months or less and are expected to bring in money to do research and train graduate students. Ray’s ability to bring in money from a variety of sources should be viewed as a success in performing his job. Thus it was not surprising at all that the University of Washington, Science magazine, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science did not find any violations of policies. Ray was just awarded the prestigious International Fisheries Prize by the World Council of Fisheries Societies at the 7th World Fisheries Congress in Busan, Korea. This prize ” honours an organization or individual for their contribution to global fisheries science or conservation and is presented once every four years at the meeting of the World Fisheries Congress.” Clearly, the international fisheries world respects Ray and his work and shudders that a large international organization is attempting to destroy his reputation to promote their often-questionable policies. It is about the money, only it is Greenpeace that should be investigated about its motives.

    • Terry,
      You might want to read the followup piece, which is written solely by me and thus reflects solely my thinking. It’s less an attempt to tarnish a reputation than to simply show that while Ray has disagreed with many people the converse is true; many people disagree with Ray about some important things. Fisheries people generally hold Ray in high regard but certain ecologists and ichthyologists and conservationists (including myself) have had some serious differences of analysis, interpretation, and opinion. My followup piece is here:

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