Greenpeace accuses Ray Hilborn of conflict of interest, Hilborn responds

Published on
May 12, 2016

University of Washington professor and global fisheries expert Ray Hilborn, who has been outspoken in countering the widely-held belief that the world’s fish stocks are declining, has been accused by Greenpeace of a lack of transparency in disclosing his funding sources.

Greenpeace’s attack on Hilborn’s credibility comes after the organization received the details of the professor’s funding sources through a Freedom of Information Act request. In a letter of complaint sent to University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar called for an investigation into Hilborn’s potential conflicts of interest between his research and public statements and funding he received but allegedly did not disclose from 69 companies and industry organizations including Trident, PeterPan Seafoods, Pacific Seafood Processors, Icicle Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods and others.

According to outside income disclosure documents, which Greenpeace posted on its website, Hilborn received USD 3.56 million (EUR 3.13 million) in corporate funding for his research and additional fees for serving as a private consultant to various companies and trade groups. The group accused Hilborn of hiding his connections to industry in research papers appearing in Science, EcosystemsProceedings of the National Academy of Science and Environmental Conservation and others, as well as in his 2013 testimony to the Congressional Committee on Natural Resources and in an op-ed published in The New York Times.

“The failure of Dr. Hilborn to fully disclose his ties to industry put both scientific knowledge and the reputation of the University of Washington at risk,” Hocevar wrote in his letter.

In a rebuttal, Hilborn denied that his receipt of industry funding was a conflict of interest. He said disclosing all of his funders every time he discussed fisheries would be overly burdensome, but said he does list his research funders in each paper he publishes.

“I, like all reputable scientists, take conflict of interest seriously,” he said. “This is one reason we acknowledge all funders of the research work discussed in each paper at the end of the document.”

Hilborn said Greenpeace’s attacks do not dispute the validity of his scientific findings.

“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,” Hilborn wrote. “On the contrary 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. Overfishing certainly continues to be a problem in the Mediterranean, much of Asia and Africa.”

In his letter, however, Hilborn, however, did not address the private consultancy fees he was allegedly paid. In an email to SeafoodSource, Hilborn said he has performed consultancy work for fishing interests, as well as foundations and NGOs.

“I have not had a chance to tally up the funding but the biggest consultancies in the last 10 years have been for water users in the Sacramento River (generally on the other side of fishing interests), New Zealand and Australian fishing groups, U.S. and Canadian governments, the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin tuna and sport fishing groups,” he wrote. “My attitude is I work for everyone and the fact that all sides of issues are willing to hire me suggests no bias and no conflict of interest in my scientific publications.”

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