An outspoken marine scientist who rejects claims of overfishing in the world’s oceans has failed to disclose millions of dollars in funding from the fishing industry, a Greenpeace investigation has revealed.
According to documents obtained by Greenpeace USA via the Public Records Act, Dr Ray Hilborn, a professor at University of Washington’s School Aquatic Fisheries Science, received at least $3.5 million from 69 fishing, seafood and other industry groups over the last 12 years.
Hilborn – whose research has been published by reputable journals such as Science, Nature and Marine Policy – has only mentioned corporate funding from 21 industry groups in 26 instances.
In a detailed response, Dr Hilborn said industry provided only 13% of his total research funding and that some of the groups mentioned are in fact small Alaska fishing communities.
I’m not going to name all 69 of them, but between 2003 and 2015 Hilborn received payments from big hitters Trident, National Fisheries Institute, New Zealand Seafood Industry Council, South African Deep Sea Trawling Industry Association, ExxonMobil, and the tuna industry’s inappropriately named International Seafood Sustainability Association.
In his work Hilborn has repeatedly called scientific data on overfishing ‘exaggerated’, advocated against marine protection zones, and opposed regulations on the seafood industry.
He has also received an unknown amount from the fishing industry for consulting services.
Where has Dr Ray Hilborn been published?
Hilborn has written for Science, Nature, Marine Policy, Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), PLOS One, Environmental Conservation, and many other journals.
He has also authored op-eds for the New York Times and other newspapers.
In the weeks since this investigation The University of Washington has written to academic journals in defence of Dr Hilborn’s research: “We have not identified any actions or lack thereof, engaged in by Dr Hilborn which violate University policies or procedures governing conflicts of interest or outside consulting.”
The Editorial Board of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) were satisfied and said they will not revise Dr Hilborn’s disclosure documents, while Science journal indicated it would stand by his 2009 paper.
Response from Dr Hilborn
In a statement, Dr Hilborn said: “Greenpeace is unable to attack the science I and my collaborators do; science that threatens their repeated assertions that overfishing is universal and that the oceans are being emptied.
“The essential issue is conflict of interest. Greenpeace seems to believe that industry funding is tantamount to a conflict of interest, regardless of its purpose. Thus, any time I discuss fisheries I would need to disclose each and every grant or contract I have ever received as a conflict of interest.
“Taking that approach I would also have to disclose funding from all of the environmental NGOs that have also helped to fund our research and education efforts. Perhaps I would also need to disclose the numerous private foundations and government agencies that have funded our work every time I discuss fisheries.
“The list of funders would be as long as some of the papers. I, like all reputable scientists, take conflict of interest seriously. This is one reason we acknowledge all funders of the research work discussed in each paper at the end of the document.”
Why it matters
The world’s oceans are amongst the world’s most vital and vibrant ecosystems, home to hundreds of thousands of species and incredible natural wonders, capable of causing enormous damage to the global climate.
They are right now in a precarious state, threatened by increasing warming and acidification, coral bleaching and collapsing fisheries.
Hilborn has become an influential figure in the debate, disputing scientific findings on the impacts of fishing on underwater communities.
As a prominent scientist at a reputable university, he has called into question key marine science findings, and his claims are often in line with those espoused by the fishing industry which has spent millions backing his research.
He’s written, for instance, against well established conservation policies, arguing that “more precautionary management is not necessarily needed to ensure the sustainability of managed fisheries”.
This comes in spite of the finding that 63% of global fish stocks require rebuilding, which was referenced in an earlier paper he co-authored.
And then there’s his vociferous opposition to marine reserves designed to protect against overfishing.
“Are these indeed victories? Not necessarily. I suggest it is likely that the world’s environment is actually worse off once such victories are evaluated globally,” he wrote in response to the declaration of the first large scale marine reserves.
In his statement on the investigation, he said: “It is clear that where effective fisheries management is applied, stocks are increasing not declining, and this is true in North America and Europe as well as a number of other places.”
John Hocevar, who lead this investigation, has written a blog in which he highlights these as some of Hilborn’s conflict-of-interest violations:
- In a 2014 op-ed in the New York Times titled “Let Us Eat Fish,” Hilborn called scientific data on overfishing “exaggerated.” The piece advocates for revisions to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, an effective piece of legislation that has helped rebuild American fish stocks from New England to California. Dr Hilborn calls for turning over a greater share of management to fisheries councils, which are overwhelmingly populated by representatives of industry. Dr Hilborn’s byline states that he is a professor at University of Washington but makes no mention of his ties to industry.
- A 2013 piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) makes the case that dams are not a cause of Chinook salmon decline in the Columbia River. Dr Hilborn disclosed no conflict of interest, despite having received income as a consultant for the San Luis Delta Mendota Water District, a powerful water agency representing agribusiness downstream of the Columbia that benefited from those very dams. Again, neither Dr Hilborn nor the article disclosed this conflict of interest.
- Dr Hilborn has repeatedly been a detractor of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and the widely held belief that global overfishing is devastating fish populations worldwide. In articles in PNAS and Science on the respective issues, Dr Hilborn does not disclose any conflict of interest. However, Dr Hilborn received income as a contractor from private industry groups to “evaluate alternative designs for marine protected areas,” and has, as mentioned, been the recipient of much funding from fishing industry groups. In the case of the article in Science, extensive acknowledgments of foundation and public funding were made, yet there was no mention of Dr Hilborn’s industry ties.
This article was updated on the 13/06/16 to include the conflict-of-interest responses by University of Washington, PNAS and Science