[Coral-List] conflict of interest

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Sat Jul 2 16:14:37 EDT 2016

     Hilborn's response was unresponsive to many of the points the
Greenpeace piece raised.  There are significant problems with some of the
arguments Hiborn makes in his response and elsewhere.  He says that
Greenpeace says that overfishing is universal, they don't: few if any
conservationists state that all fish stocks are overfished.  He says that
it is in the interest of fishers to have well managed stocks; and while it
is in the long term interest of fishers to have a well managed fishery, in
is in their short term interest to take all they can get before someone
else takes it, and short term interests usually control human behavior.
Although he tries to downplay the amount of overfishing, Hilborn is a
co-author on a recent paper that states that the median condition of the
world's fisheries is overfished.  Hilborn says he supports all views being
represented in fisheries debates, yet he is said to advocate for giving
fisheries councils in the US more power, although they have been documented
to have little or no conservation representation.  Hilborn argues that
giant MPAs are too small to protect "highly migratory" tuna, yet he also
argues that giant MPAs will reduce the world's food supply.  They could
only do that if they were effective at protecting tuna.  And Hilborn cherry
picks data on fishing down the food web on his website.

     I did not find in Hilborn's reply a point by point rebuttal of the
Greenpeace article.  In particular, the Greenpeace article had 4 bullet
points, none of which were responded to.  It seems to me that Hilborn's
response boils down to saying that since he's received $16 million in
funding, $3.5 million is only a small part of that, so the fact it came
from the fishing industry is not important.  Plus he got funding from some
conservation organizations as well.  Further, he says that he can't list
all the funding agencies for each article, and doesn't need to list those
that did not fund that particular article.  He didn't say it in his
response, but there is no problem with the fishing industry paying for
research on finding ways to reduce overfishing or ecosystem impacts, etc.
     The Hilborn response can be found at:
think Magnus' link didn't work because it had two periods between
greenpeace and pdf)
     Hilborn has written that conservationists want to stop ALL fishing.
That's hardly the case, and he should know it.  In this piece, he says in
the second sentence that Greenpeace "repeated assertions that overfishing
is universal."  I did a search on "overfishing universal" on the Greenpeace
website, but nothing popped up.  A search on "overfishing" got lots of
hits, but as I read titles, I can't find any that say that "overfishing is
universal" or anything that means the same thing or close to it.  Hilborn's
statement appears to literally not be true.  He should check his facts a
bit more carefully before he states things in public.  I don't remember
ever having read that elsewhere either in the science literature, though
the media commonly suggests something like this, but I doubt it is a common
conservationist position.  He's a co-author of a new paper that says that
over half of all fisheries are overfished.  That appears to be a
significant problem.  It is easier to exaggerate your opponent's position
and then attack that straw man, than to attack your opponent's actual
     Hilborn also writes "In fact, 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."  I'll argue that that is a
gross oversimplification and misleading.  Yes, over the long haul, it would
be in the financial interest of the industry as a whole to have good
management.  But in the short term, and for individual fishermen and
companies, it is in their financial interest to take as much as they
possibly can get before someone else gets it.  Hilborn likes to call that
the "race for fish", others call it the "tragedy of the commons."  Short
term individual interests generally dominate long term group interests.  If
they didn't, there would be no overfished stocks and no need for
regulation.  The evidence indicates that he is dead wrong on this one.  But
he's saying what the fishing industry likes to hear, because it doesn't
like restrictions on fishing and because it prefers that public statements
downplay any problems with overfishing.  It doesn't like restrictions
because they can hurt short term profits.  I think Hilborn is enough of an
expert to know better.  He's not ignorant.  But he is good at tilting in
favor of the fishing industry (as well as doing high quality research).
     The Greenpeace letter to the University of Washington (where Hilborn
is a professor) spells out a number of individual instances in which
acknowledgements were omitted by Hilborn.  Hilborn's reply did not respond
to those individual instances.
     Hilborn says that Greenpeace doesn't attack his science, because they
can't.  Readers may recall my earlier post on Hilborn, arguing with several
of his positions on MPAs.  His positions are certainly not limited to the
hard science.  In fact, his statements often imply that the extent of
overfishing is exaggerated by conservationists, yet the most recent
summary, by Costello et al (including Hilborn) says in the abstract that
the median condition for world fisheries is overfished, though 32% of
stocks are not overfished:

Costello, C., Ovando, D., Clavelle, D., Strauss, C.K., *Hilborn*, R.,
Meinychuck, M.C., Branch, T.A., Gaines, S.D., Szuwalski, C.S., Cabrai,
R.B., Rader, D.N., Leland, A., 2016. Global fishery prospects under
contrasting management regimes. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences of the United States of America. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1520420113.

   In the Greenpeace page there are links to several documents, including a
short opinion piece published in Environmental Science and Technology,
entitled: "Viewpoint: why disclosure matters."  Interesting read.

The Greenpeace web page states at one point that "Dr. Hilborn calls for
turning over a greater share of management to fisheries councils, which are
overwhelmingly populated by representatives of industry."  The basis of the
latter part of that statement was not documented.  But it reminded me of a
paper that does document it:

Okey, T.A.  2003.  Membership of the eight regional fishery management
councils in the United States: are special interests over-represented?
Marine Policy 27: 193-206.         Not open-access, check Google Scholar

Fisheries Councils in the U.S. have influence on coral reef fish
management, particularly in federal waters (beyond 3 miles from shore).

     Advocating as Hilborn does for giving fisheries councils more power in
the management of fisheries, is to advocate putting the fox in charge of
the chicken coup even more than it already is.  There is a fundamental
conflict of interest when an industry is allowed to "self-regulate."  In
practice, they rarely regulate, they fight regulation.  They are a special
interest group.  But his advocacy for more power for fisheries councils is
surely warmly regarded by the fishing lobby, since they have an outsize
influence in the councils, if not total control.
    Interestingly, in his reply to the Greenpeace posting, Hilborn ends
with the statement that "My belief is that all voices need to be heard, and
all stakeholders need to be at the table."  Yet he strongly supports giving
fisheries councils more power, even though the fisheries councils are
dominated by fishing interests, with little or no representation from
scientists or conservationists (scientists are represented not on the
council which makes the council policy, but on the "Scientific and
Statistical Committee" which in some fisheries councils is dominated by
those who are supportive of the industry and others who are unaware of how
the council operates; but there are vanishingly few if any representatives
of conservation interests).  Hardly a good example of what he says he
supports.  Yet he is surely not so ignorant as to not know that fisheries
councils are dominated by fishing interests, it is well documented in the
Okey article and widely known.
    Another inconsistency is that Hilborn and supporters often say that
giant MPAs can't work because tuna and tuna-like species are "highly
migratory" and will swim out of the MPA, so the MPA can't protect them.  I
just noticed that in his debate with Callum Roberts, one of his main points
was that giant MPAs will reduce the world fish catch, and since people need
to be fed, that will shift burden onto other resources, such as on land and
have environmental and financial costs.  Yet he doesn't point out that that
will only happen if giant MPAs are actually effective at protecting these
migratory fish.  Yet he has argued that they will not be effective (if they
are not effective, just as many fish will be caught as before the MPA, so
no impact on food supply).  Either one or the other of his arguments will
fail, they can't both be true.  Yet he certainly doesn't point that out.
Much better to be able to trot out either one when they are useful in an
    I thought the Greenpeace title was interesting, referring to Hilborn as
a denier.  In a sense, he's not a denier of overfishing, he certainly says
that there is overfishing of some stocks.  He denies there is universal
overfishing, but then no scientist is claiming that as far as I know (the
media often talk as though it's true, though).  One parallel to climate
change deniers appears in his "CFood" website, under the category "Myths."
 The 4th "myth" listed, is entitled "We are NOT fishing down the food
chain."  http://cfooduw.org/myths/we-are-fishing-down-the-food-chain/
  It has 2 graphs, the first is of data published by Pauly in 1998, which
showed a decrease in trophic level of fish catches.  The second is a graph
in which new data is added and some data was corrected for a corrected
trophic level for cod.  Hilborn says that the new graph shows that trophic
level is increasing.  He has arrows on both graphs to make his point.  The
arrows show decrease in the first graph, and increase in the second graph.
Readers will note that the arrow is only for the latter part of the data.
This is cherry picking the data.  If Hilborn actually used science to
analyze the graph, he would have plotted a regression line for the whole
data set in each graph.  For the first graph, the regression line would
have had a relatively steep decline, and for the second a relatively
gradual decline, but a decline nevertheless (it may not be significantly
different from no trend, that I don't know).  He could have said that while
there is still an overall decline, the curve is now rising and if it
continues, in time the overall trend will become no decline or an
increase.  That would be legitimate to say.  But he did not do that, he
chose to cherry pick and say that it is increasing.  Hilborn is very
knowledgeable about statistics, he obviously knows better, but he chose to
cherry pick and deliberately come to the wrong conclusion.  In fact, the
data he presents in these graphs do NOT support the title of this web page
of his.  The rest of the information on the page appears to support the
title for the page.

    Hilborn is of course entitled to his opinions and to express them
whenever he wants (though no one is legally required to give him a
megaphone or platform to speak from).  However, his bias is pretty
transparent.  Perhaps people might want to consider his statements

Cheers,  Doug

On Tue, May 17, 2016 at 1:26 AM, Magnus Johnson <m.johnson at hull.ac.uk>

> Incapable of tackling the science, Greenpeace appear to be attempting to
> discredit one of the most world's most respected fisheries scientists.
> Ray's response is here:
> https://rayhblog.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/hilborn-response-to-greenpeace..pdf
> -----Original Message-----
> From: John Hocevar [mailto:jhocevar at greenpeace.org]
> Sent: 16 May 2016 17:51
> To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> Subject: [Coral-List] conflict of interest
> Hi -
> After seeing the discussion about Gene's question whether reef scientists
> benefit from climate change, I thought some of you might be interested in a
> related debate unfolding now. On Thursday, Greenpeace revealed <
> http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/research/overfishing-denier>
> that Ray Hilborn, a prominent UW fisheries biologist, had taken $3.56
> million from industry, and often failed to disclose these conflicts of
> interest appropriately. We sent this letter <
> https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2829811-Hilborn-Complaint-Letter-Final.html
> >
> to UW outlining our findings, including several specific examples where it
> seemed that direct conflicts had not been disclosed in apparent violation
> of journal policies.
> This is clearly quite a bit different than reef scientists working to
> understand and address the most significant threat to the survival of coral
> reefs. I bring this up here as contrast, but also because MPAs are one of
> the most tools we have to increase the resiliency of reef ecosystems and
> give them a chance of surviving the rapid changes they are experiencing.
> Dr. Hilborn has frequently argued against MPAs in recent years, as in this
> debate <
> https://www.openchannels.org/chat/online-debate-large-no-take-areas-their-total-environmental-impact-positive-or-negative
> >
> with Callum Roberts, and has been vocal in his criticism of marine
> conservation efforts. As has become clear through conversations with
> scientists over the past few days, many people who were understandably
> frustrated with Hilborn's role in debates around the California Marine Life
> Protection Act, or reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, were
> unaware of the extent of his industry ties.
> Media coverage has been fairly balanced so far, with strong coverage in Le
> Monde, Der Spiegel, NZ Herald, AP, NPR, Seattle Times, and the Huffington
> Post <
> http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ray-hilborn-funding_us_57365012e4b077d4d6f33238
> >.
> UW, several scientific journals, the NY Times (which published an Op-Ed by
> Hilborn), and several funders are looking into this matter now and
> considering next steps. There has been a lively (ahem) conversation about
> this controversy on social media, and I encourage you to add your thoughts.
> John Hocevar
> Oceans Campaign Director
> Greenpeace USA
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Douglas Fenner
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PO Box 7390
Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA

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