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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Faith-based Fisheries

The scientific community gave a collective
sigh of relief just before Christmas
2005 when Judge John E. Jones III ruled
that intelligent design is not a scientific
theory and cannot be taught alongside evolution
as an alternative scientific
hypothesis. There is no better way to unite
any group of fractious scientists than to
bring up creationism and intelligent design
as alternative scientific hypotheses—scientists
know that these faith-based ideas are
not scientific and have no place in a scientific
course. The court’s ruling is a triumph
for the scientific method of hypotheses
being confronted by data and a setback for
those with a political agenda masquerading
as science.

However, before we congratulate ourselves
too much for the triumph of the
scientific method over belief, I suggest the
fisheries community needs to look at itself
and question whether there is not a within
our own field a strong movement of faithbased
acceptance of ideas, and a search for
data that support these ideas, rather than
critical and skeptical analysis of the evidence.

This faith-based fisheries movement has
emerged in the last decade, and it threatens
the very heart of the scientific
process—peer review and publication in
the top journals. Two journals with the
highest profile, Science and Nature, clearly
publish articles on fisheries not for their scientific
merit, but for their publicity value.
Beginning in at least 1993 with an article I
co-authored (Ludwig et al. 1993), Science
and Nature have published a long string of
papers on the decline and collapse of fisheries
that have attracted considerable
public attention, and occasionally gaining
coverage in the New York Times and the
Washington Post. I assert that the peer
review process has now totally failed and
many of these papers are being published
only because the editors and selected
reviewers believe in the message, or
because of their potential newsworthiness.

As examples, let me choose papers by
well-established professionals who have
long records of significant work beyond the
papers discussed below and I emphasize the
problem is with the peer review and editorial
system, not the authors of the papers.
Casey and Myers’ paper on barndoor skate
(Casey and Myers 1998) argued that these
skates were headed towards extinction.
Analysis by others more familiar with the
data showed that the survey data came
from areas that are not the core of the range
of the species (Kulka et al. 2002), and subsequent
evaluation of the status of
barndoor skate in New England by the
National Marine Fisheries Service concluded
they were not overfished (Boelke et
al. 2005), hardly headed towards extinction.
A review by the Canadian
Department of Fisheries and Oceans
removed barndoor skates from a list of
species that are threatened or endangered.
The original paper has not been withdrawn
and continues to frequently cited as an
example of near extinction of marine

Myers and Worm published a paper in
Nature (Myers and Worm 2003) which
made the front page of major national
newspapers, purporting to show that large
pelagic fish stocks around the world had
declined rapidly and by the 1980s were at
less than 10% of their historic abundance.
Widely cited in the scientific and popular
literature, this paper raised a furor among
many scientists specializing in pelagic fisheries
who knew the same data, knew it was
being misinterpreted, and knew there was a
large body of other data that contradicted
Myers and Worm’s results. At least three
independent critiques of the paper subsequently
have been published: Walters
(2003), Hampton et al. (2005), and
Polacheck (2006). The critics are not the
“old guard defending their turf,” because it
is not as if no one had noticed that the
catch-per-unit effort data Myers and Worm
used had declined. Rather these critics
have themselves long been arguing that
some of these fisheries are now depleted
and overfished. What they criticized was
Myers and Worm’s analysis, their highly
selective use of data, and specific conclusions
about the extent and timing of
depletion of these stocks, not their concern
about overexploitation.

Conover and Munch (2002) published
a highly cited paper in Science showing
experimental evidence that size-selective
fishing could induce growth changes in fish
stocks and suggested this was a mechanism
that could lead to collapse of fish stocks.
The article never looked at actual fisheries
data to ask if the laboratory selection
regime imposed resembled what happens in
fisheries, nor did they look at the vast body
of fisheries data which shows that fish more
commonly grow faster, not slower, when
fishing pressure is high.

A paper in Science (Roberts et al. 2001)
purported to show an example of how a
marine protected area (MPA) increased
yields outside the protected area, when in
fact the abundance of fish outside the protected
area increased within one year of the
establishment of the MPA. Any competent
peer reviewer would have seen the flaw in
this logic—the theory of MPA impacts on
adjoining areas requires at least a generation
for abundance to build inside reserves
and recruitment to spill out (Hilborn
2002). The displacement of fishing effort
from inside to outside the reserve should
initially cause abundance outside to
decrease, so the increasing abundance outside
the reserve after MPA establishment
must have been due to an uncontrolled

These four examples illustrate a failure
of the peer review system and lack of the
basic skepticism needed in science, and are
unfortunately but a few of the many papers
now appearing with similar sensational but
unsubstantiated headlines. The people
who knew the data used in the Casey and
Myers paper and the Myers and Worm
paper clearly were not involved in the
review process, or the editors chose to
ignore their opinions. The complete
absence of skepticism by the reviewers of
the Roberts paper is a concern. The
Conover and Munch paper demonstrated
that growth is a heritable trait, but failed to
demonstrate anything about how commercial
fisheries operate. It did pose a testable
hypothesis, but the paper did not include
the real fisheries data to see if there was
support for the hypothesis.

A community of belief has arisen whose
credo has become “fisheries management
has failed, we need to abandon the old
approaches and use marine protected areas
and ecosystem-based management.” I fear
that this belief has shaded the peer review
process so badly that almost any paper
showing a significant decline in fish abundance
or benefits of marine protected areas
has a high probability of getting favorable
reviews in some journals regardless of the
quality of the analysis. Critical peer review
has been replaced by faith-based support for
ideas and too many scientists have become
advocates. An advocate knows the answer
and looks for evidence to support it; a scientist
asks nature how much support there
is for competing hypotheses.
Much of the problem lies in the kind
of journals Science and Nature have
become: commercial enterprises covering
a broad range of scientific issues. In a
spoof of a Science article published on the
New York Times web site, one of the
fictitious authors is quoted as saying
“journal editors favor bold claims, because
these attract press attention and help
recruit further bold papers, which in turn
is a tonic for circulation and advertising”
( ). Given the high prestige of Science
and Nature and the impact publication in
these journals has on promotion and grants,
one cannot blame authors for making bold
claims. Perhaps those of us in fisheries
should simply not give articles in these
journals the prestige they now enjoy.
Because of their general coverage, Science
and Nature must have problems identifying
appropriate reviewers for an individual
paper. While there is no easy solution to
this, a good step would be for journals to
publish the names of reviewers who
recommend publication. That would at
least make it clear if these journals are
relying on a small group of like-minded
reviewers who have little expertise relevant
to technical papers. Finally, the fact that
discredited papers continue to be widely
cited is aggravated by the fact the rebuttals
frequently are not published by the original
journal and may appear in gray literature or
technical journals. The high-profile
journals need to be especially sensitive to
critiques of articles they have published and
to formally withdraw discredited papers.

Although the scientific community was
unanimous in its condemnation of faithbased
teachings in evolution, we need to
also reject agenda-driven, faith-based publication
in fisheries and revive the peer
review and publication process within our
own community. Let’s go back to testable
hypotheses and evidence, and make sure
that the peer reviewers know the data and
the problem, and are not chosen because of
their faith.

Ray Hilborn
Hilborn is the Richard C. and Lois M.
Worthington Professor of Fisheries
Management at the School of Aquatic and
Fisheries Sciences, University of
Washington, Seattle. He can be contacted

If anyone in this world should be running NOAA, it is Dr. Ray Hilborn! No Brag, just fact...Hey? Is that not what science should be based on, FACTS???

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