Changing Planet

If payers don’t sway players, what does funding tell you?

Several people have objected to the recent piece here by me and Greenpeace’s John Hocevar, so I am following up with this.

That earlier piece explained a complaint by Greenpeace alleging that fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn has often not properly disclosed industry funding in his scientific publications. The people writing in to object to that piece point out that many people get various funding and can’t mention it all with every publication. I accept that as fair and valid.

One colleague of Ray’s wrote to me to show that: 1) in 2012 the journal PLOS One determined that a paper co-authored by Hilborn did not entail a conflict of interest; and that in apparent response to the recent Greenpeace accusation, 2) the journal PNAS decided that Hilborn’s disclosure statements were adequate, 3) the journal Science similarly found Hilborn’s disclosure statement for a 2009 paper adequate, 4) as did the University of Washington. In addition, Hilborn compiled a list of several dozen papers which did, indeed, acknowledge funding by industry entities.

So is there any issue at all?

Fishing vessel. Credit: Carl Safina
Fishing vessel. Credit: Carl Safina

Perhaps the emphasis of the earlier piece does not really get at the main point, which is: what do sources of funding say about a person’s work? Are people swayed by their funding sources?

If sources of funding (payers) don’t sway grantees (players), they at least reveal something about the player’s internal sway, meaning their inclinations. I am funded by people concerned with conservation and interested in protecting species and habitats. Though I don’t feel swayed by them because I have been passionate about nature and conservation since I was a child, my funders are like-minded with me. I don’t say things because they fund me; they fund me because they like what I have to say. So if you want to know what kind of funders I have, my work is a pretty good indicator. Likewise, knowing my funders (private foundations, individuals interested in conservation) can lead you to guess correctly about my working perspective.

I suspect that Ray Hilborn’s funders, too, like what he does and says. Hilborn has attacked bodies of work large and wide because he doesn’t agree with them, or, more precisely, because he believes they are wrong. Those he believes wrong are a large cast of academics and conservationists, and he has criticized and castigated various researchers and their studies, from the University of British Columbia, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Dalhousie and Stony Brook Universities, and others. He has issued blanket statements attacking the entire peer review process of Nature and Science—the worlds two top-ranked science journals—because he disagrees with certain papers, saying each joural’s peer review processes have “totally failed” and offering as evidence that they “clearly publish articles on fisheries not for their scientific merit, but for their publicity value.” Does anyone else believe that the world’s two top science journals are really just lusting after fame and have chosen fisheries (not, say, their papers on cancer, infectious diseases, and genetic engineering) to gain wide media attention?

Bluefin tuna in Canada. Credit: Carl Safina
Bluefin tuna, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Credit: Carl Safina

Ray, in print, called a laboratory study “faith based” because he didn’t like the results of a series of controlled experiments with real data on the genetic changes that can be induced by simulating heavy fishing pressure in several generations of fish. His criticism of that study was as revealing about Ray’s defensive pro-fishing bias as it was inexcusable. Data, being evidence, is exactly the opposite of “faith.”

Ray often makes tautological arguments about how well-managed fisheries can work. Of course “well-managed” fisheries work. But only a handful of countries have the capacity to have well-managed fisheries. Most are too poor for the monitoring, science, and enforcement required by the modern Western-style fisheries management that is Hilborn’s stock in trade. And in the tropics, such data-intensive management does not transfer well to fisheries targeting coral reef fishes, in which poor people from thousands of small villages (Indonesia alone has around 17,000 islands) exert heavy cumulative pressures to feed millions of people.

That’s part of why we have overfishing and depletion. And that is why we need new approaches, approaches that Ray Hilborn seems to think are unnecessary.

Hilborn is funded, among others, by various fishing industry groups. I think that’s partly because he is as dedicated to the extractive fishing industry as I am dedicated to the fish themselves. For me, fishing is something that can happen after we take care of the fish—or at least after we let the fish take care of themselves.

Ray Hilborn, in stark contrast, thinks we are not fishing hard enough. In 2013 testimony to the U.S. Congress Hilborn stated that the large “stocks” of fish are being fished too lightly. In addition, “Rebuilding…may indeed be impossible…regardless of reductions in fishing.” (His reason, stated with a hint of mystery, is that although fisheries scientists used to believe that “reducing fishing pressure on stocks at low abundance allows biomass to rebuild, 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.” So there you have it—except, wait until the next quote from him, a few paragraphs below.)

In other words, many fish populations cannot rebuild even if left alone, and fishing pressure is often irrelevant to fish abundance. In other words there is nothing anyone can do (a view that strikes me as a kind of “learned helplessness”). Why waste time addressing problems? Why not just forget about it and go fishing—hard!

Thresher shark. Credit: Carl Safina

Here’s why not: many fish populations do in fact rebuild if fishing pressure eases. And on this point, in fact, Hilborn recently contradicts the impression much of his work and statements have given. In a recent posting on tunas and billfishes globally, this time Hilborn shows that population numbers do in fact respond to changes in fishing pressure, stating:

“In general, fishing mortality has declined for most of tuna and billfish stocks in the last decade due to an improvement in management by the tuna’s Regional Fishery Management Organizations. In our paper, we showed that the implementation of total allowable catches (TACs) to limit catches is the management measure that leads to the fastest rebuilding of overfished tuna and billfish stocks. In addition, limits in fishing capacity, seasonal closures and minimum size regulations were also important in reducing fishing pressure but not as important as TACs in increasing stock biomass.”

That certainly seems at odds with the impression I get from his testimony to Congress of 2013 as quoted above (“Rebuilding…may indeed be impossible…regardless of reductions in fishing.”)

Here’s another strong impression I get: During the times Ray criticized many people who were working hard to reduce fishing pressure through catch reductions and other methods—those people (and I was among them) had some success and those methods generally worked. And now Ray is “showing” us that they work. And he is using data to back up his claims—as his supporters always say he always does.

Everyone uses data to back their claims. But what one is looking for affects what one looks at. Fisheries scientists like Hilborn often look for how many fish can be caught, while fish- and ocean ecologists look for how many fish must be left in the sea, or how to get them back. We now know that while some deeply depleted fish have been unable to rebuild, many others have indeed rebuilt when fishing pressure has lessened.

So I don’t think the main issue is whether Hilborn discloses funding or not. Let’s just say he does. Perhaps the point is that Ray Hilborn is a darling of the fishing industry and a hero to extraction-oriented fisheries scientists because he thinks like they do, seems to excuse excesses, and seems to give them permission to do what they want to do: catch fish and not worry too much about it.

Perhaps I worry too much. But I do worry. And I do see that in many hard-fought, hard-won cases, easing up on fishing has created recoveries. And recoveries are good. They’re even good for fishing. That’s my view.

~ Carl Safina

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.
  • Glenn Reed

    Dear Mr Safina:

    If funding tells me there is bias what am I to make of published research with funding from:

    The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (and all Foundations)
    The Pew Charitable Trusts (and all Trusts)
    National Geographic
    Federal Funding

    If the funding for a published paper was 50% industry / 50% foundation what should determine it’s lack of bias? That it was published, or that it was funded by two sources with differing perspectives? 90% / 10% funding from the same sources, and vice versa?

    When you do work that is funded by some entity, is your work biased by the funding source?


    • Glenn-
      Good questions, but your last question implies that you perhaps did not actually read the article.

  • Milo Adkison

    Dear Dr. Safina,

    I greatly wish that this had been the original article you submitted. Although I disagree with some of your points, and think you misrepresent some of Hilborn’s positions, this article falls within the realm of acceptable scientific debate. Certainly Ray’s written articles with similar tone.

    However, the original article with Hocevar was not a debate on scientific disagreements, but a simple character assassination. At this point, asserting that “possibly Hilborn sincerely believes in commercial fishing, although my belioef in protecting fish is superior” falls well short of the public apology you owe Hilborn whose integrity you’ve publicly questioned.

    • Thanks Milo. This piece is written solely by me, so it reflects my own thinking. (The first piece, co-authored by John Hocevar of Greenpeace, blends his thinking and mine.) My point is simply that the work of grantees is philosophically in line with their funders. If it isn’t, funders are unlikely to issue or renew a grant or contract. That creates certain financial and psychological incentives to find, see, or focus on certain aspects of issues. My work is funded by entities whose views of conservation largely overlap with my own, for instance. I think that is true of essentially all people funded by grants or gifts.

      My funders are mostly foundations with no profits at stake; I have no interest in contract work for for-profit entities. I watched my graduate advisor turn down increasingly lucrative offers by Exxon to do contract surveys in the wake of the Valdez spill; she wanted nothing to do with Exxon regardless of the handsome sums offered and I admired her for that. It was good role-modeling for me.

      Most fundamentally I don’t think it’s a question of whether a “belief” in protecting or exploiting fish is “superior.” It’s a question of where those differing views take us——depletion or renewal. It’s a matter of who has more consistently been right about trends in fish populations (and other issues) and whose views are more timely: those who see depletion and work to reverse it, or those who focus on catching more fish and have claimed that there is nothing that can be done because fish cannot recover. I would rather solve than ignore problems that are evident to me, and many other people work to do that.

      You’re correct that Ray has written and said various things with a tone highly critical of others in that latter category of people who see and are working to solve problems. I don’t think any apologies are necessary here.

  • Milo Adkison


    I appreciate your measured response. I think you misunderstand what Ray is trying to do and what he has said.

    First, I think it’s counterproductive to exaggerate the extent of fisheries depletion. Discriminating between successful and unsuccessful fisheries helps us learn how to change management to effect recovery in stocks that need it. Certification bodies (disclosure – I’ve consulted for the MSC) have educated consumers, and provided significant pressure on poorly managed fisheries to reform and decently-managed fisheries to improve. This is a much better strategy to improve stock health than claiming all fisheries are collapsing in the near future, which provides no incentives for the fisheries or consumers to effect reform.

    Second, Ray isn’t saying that you shouldn’t stop fishing when a stock collapses. He’s pointing out that sometimes stopping fishing doesn’t guarantee rebuilding. We’ve seen this in North Atlantic cod, Northern fur seals, and in in Upper Adams sockeye salmon, where thankfully after several decades of reduced pressure the stock finally rebounded. Our late 1970’s regime shift in the Gulf of Alaska drastically lowered abundances of many stocks. Just because it was a regime shift doesn’t mean we shouldn’t drastically reduce fishing pressure, it just means we shouldn’t expect that this will result in an immediate recovery. That’s Ray’s message, not “fish all you want, it doesn’t make any difference”.

    • Thank you. There are perhaps several reasons to misunderstand Ray, foremost for me are his hostilities and inconsistencies, noted in my article.

      While it is of course counterproductive to exaggerate any problem, I don’t know scientists whose work “exaggerates” the extent of depletions. I think you are referring to at least two well-known analyses that you think are not correct, but those are analyses and their conclusions were systematically arrived at. Disagreements arise based on opinions of statistical methods. Media did, yes, greatly exaggerate one paper. But in my opinion, it wasn’t the scientists who exaggerated.
      At any rate, you’ve consulted for the Marine Stewardship Council and I helped create its evaluation criteria. (However, I disagree with some of their evaluations.) I was the first person to put out seafood sustainability evaluations for consumers, in the form of an article with a tear-out list in Audubon Magazine in 1998, and for many years we continued by producing wallet cards and then an app. My not-for-profit currently advises Whole Foods Market on which seafood are sustainably produced according to our criteria. So I agree that educating consumers and pressuring producers is constructive. But to do so you have to admit there’s a problem and also believe that solutions are possible.

      The impression I’ve gotten from Hilborn’s work is, indeed, that reducing fishing pressure doesn’t matter. I’ve also gotten the opposite impression, because 0f inconsistencies I’ve noted in the article.

      But the main point in that regard is: reducing fishing pressure and protecting areas from fishing are usually the only things we can do to address damage caused by fishing pressure, and often (sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly) reducing fishing pressure is the sole or main thing that brings about recoveries.

  • Max Ledbetter

    We need to give weight to what we know about overfishing, habitat destruction, climate change, and human overpopulation, rather than to what we might never know about regime shifts and population dynamics. Sea crimes are often perfect crimes, and fisheries science is a very soft science.

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