Ray Hilborn: Overfishing Denier

by John Hocevar

May 12, 2016

A Greenpeace investigation shows that a prominent American fisheries scientist took millions of dollars in funding from fishing industry groups without publicly disclosing it.

Ray Hilborn

Dr. Ray Hilborn has made a career refuting the scientific consensus that points to declining fisheries worldwide. Now, documents recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that Dr. Hilborn has received more than $3 million from commercial fishing and seafood interests. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Update, February 2019:

Back in 2016, Greenpeace called out a well-known scientist named Ray Hilborn for failing to disclose the funding he’d received from the fishing industry in several of his publications. Conflict of interest doesn’t necessarily mean that it affects your conclusions, but studies have shown that it often does — and that is why disclosure is important. (For similar reasons, Greenpeace does not accept funding from governments or corporations. We value our independence, which ensures our ability to say what needs to be said.) Some fisheries biologists were outraged that we had the gall to point out these conflicts, claiming that we were just doing it because we didn’t agree with what he was saying. Meanwhile, quite a few other scientists quietly said they really appreciated our effort. Finally, the journal PLOS ONE wrote to say they’d posted correction, noting his industry funding. As part of their investigation into our appeal, the journal also posted a correction noting that several authors of a paper defending the Marine Stewardship Council were actually employed by the MSC – and Ray Hilborn had received funding from certifiers employed by the MSC. Small victories, perhaps, but in an era where we need strong scientific advice more than ever, we cannot afford to have research clouded by undisclosed conflicts of interest. While PLOS ONE is to be commended for investigating this matter and posting corrections accordingly, other journals have yet to follow suit.

Warming and acidifying waters. Massive bleaching of corals. Collapsing fisheries. Pollution from oil, chemicals, plastics, and human waste. The oceans and ocean life are in trouble, and most scientists in the field agree. To begin to turn it around, civilization needs to look at the state of the oceans with sober and clear eyes.

Now, a Greenpeace investigation shows that a prominent scientist — one who has presented a rosier picture of the oceans than most of his peers — has accepted millions in research funding and additional consultancy payments from fishing industry groups without disclosing it to the public or the venues that publish his work.

Dr. Ray Hilborn, a professor at University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, has made a career of contradicting the science that shows increasingly declining fish stocks across the globe. His maverick position has earned him a unique status within ocean science.

And, unsurprisingly, it has won him many fans within industry. Dr. Hilborn’s work has often been promoted when the industrial fishing industry has sought to defend its worst practices, including bottom trawling. And as someone often cited in industry-funded public relations efforts, he has become the go-to scientist for contrarian opinions on fishing impacts.

Dr. Hilborn’s extensive catalog of publications has propelled him to wide recognition. They also seem to have insulated him from criticism. The results of Greenpeace’s recent Public Records Act requests to Hilborn’s employer the University of Washington will undoubtedly force the science community to reassess the latitude they have shown the professor for years. Records show that Dr. Hilborn has taken more than $3.5 million in corporate funding for research. He has also received an untold sum from a long career as a consultant to industry.

And while some of his peers suspected, few if any of them knew for sure.

While inquiries into Dr. Hilborn’s conduct are still ongoing, a number of ethical concerns have been brought to light. Dr. Hilborn’s failure to disclose funding sources violates the policies of many of the journals in which he has published — the journals that have effectively made his career. Failure to disclose that funding is also a violation of the ethical standards of academic science, as it creates an inaccurate perception among scientific peers and the public that Dr. Hilborn’s research has no potential financial bias.

Documents show that between 2003 and 2015, Dr. Hilborn received $3.56 million from 69 distinct fishing or seafood companies and corporate interests, including Trident, the South African Deep Sea Trawling Association, and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, which, despite its name, is the trade association for the industrial tuna fleet. Documents also show that in the same period, Dr. Hilborn received payments as a consultant from a number of industry groups, including FishAmerica Foundation, the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council, At-Sea Processors Association, the BC Underwater Harvesters Association, and ExxonMobil.

Dive deeper into the documents detailing Dr. Hilborn’s connections to the fishing industry:

Dr. Hilborn has earned a reputation — and a lot of money — as a critic of the widely held views that unsustainable fishing is harming our ecosystems. He has also been a vocal critic of efforts to strengthen regulations.

By presenting himself as a scientist without conflicts of interest, rather than a well-paid advocate for the fishing industry, he has hindered effective policy discussions and delayed urgently needed reforms. Among some of the most egregious public examples include:

  • 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.
  • In 2010, Dr. Hilborn co-wrote correspondence in the esteemed journal Nature, in which he advocated for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). In 2012, he co-authored a paper in the highly-regarded PLOS One saying that the MSC “accurately identifies healthy fish stocks and conveys reliable information on stock status to seafood consumers.” In previous years, Dr. Hilborn received outside income from TAVEL Certification Inc. and Scientific Certification Systems, both certification companies employed by the MSC. In neither cases were his ties to MSC-related companies revealed, clear violations of both journals’ policies — and the standards of academic science.
  • 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.
Coral Reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

Dr. Hilborn has argued that protecting places like this, the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge established in 2009, would do more environmental harm than good. Photo by Jim Maragos / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There are many more examples of failures to disclose conflicts that we know about, and our researchers are continuing to investigate. Additionally, Dr. Hilborn’s violations may extend past his own science to compromise his extensive work as a reviewer and editor for scientific journals. As gatekeeper of knowledge and scientific understanding, we believe conflicts of interest such as the ones documented should be automatic grounds for disqualification.

Dr. Hilborn served as a member of the Board of Reviewing Editors for Science for nearly eight years. He was also associate editor of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences from 2002-2013. He is currently a Guest Editor at PNAS, and on the Editorial Boards of the journals Fish and Fisheries and Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries.

Greenpeace expects further revelations in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, we are filing letters with each of the journals for which we have evidence of Dr. Hilborn’s failure to disclose conflicts of interest. We are also pushing the University of Washington to conduct its own investigation of Dr. Hilborn.

In the grand tradition of harmful industries buying science to support their destructive practices — from tobacco to the fossil fuel industry — Dr. Hilborn and the fishing industry have peddled in doubt for too long. It is time for them to be stopped and real science to prevail.

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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