To his detractors, fisheries professor Ray Hilborn is an "overfishing denier," a scientist who’s all too eager to accept money from industry groups to pay for his pro-fishing research.
To his backers, he’s a hero, a respected researcher who can always be counted on to challenge environmental groups that want to limit fishing.
Love him or hate him, there’s little doubt that the outspoken Hilborn has attained an international profile and that he has found a way to win big-time attention in fishing circles.
His next stop is Capitol Hill.
Tomorrow, Hilborn, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, will appear before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation panel, getting another chance to argue his case that overfishing is no longer a concern for the United States.
He’s one of four experts scheduled to testify before the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
"What I’m going to say in my testimony is that overfishing is no longer the major threat to the sustainability of our oceans or biodiversity," Hilborn said in an interview. "My first line on Tuesday is going to be that we have really fixed our fisheries by having fisheries management follow science advice — and if you stop doing that, you’re in trouble."
Hilborn also said it’s time to stop "vilifying" fishing.
"I wrote the book on overfishing, called ‘Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know,’ by Oxford University Press," Hilborn said. "You know, overfishing is a serious problem in many places. It’s not a very serious problem in the United States now. It was 30 years ago. … And the U.S. has responded, as has Europe. In most developed countries, fish stocks are increasing in abundance, they are not declining in abundance."
The question of overfishing is a key focus for Congress as lawmakers consider making changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, a law passed in 1976 that sets the rules for fishing in federal waters (E&E Daily, July 17).
Backers and opponents alike credit the landmark law for improving the health of U.S. fish stocks, though many worry the Trump administration has moved too quickly to allow more fishing.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees NOAA, heightened those concerns with two key decisions: In June, he extended the season for the Gulf red snapper by 39 days, and in July, he overturned a decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that would have cut New Jersey’s recreational quota for summer flounder, also known as fluke (Greenwire, Sept. 20).
Critics fear Ross’ decisions could lead to overfishing and jeopardize both fish stocks in the long run.
Meanwhile, the president’s fisheries chief, Chris Oliver, told a House Natural Resources panel last month that 91 percent of all fishing stocks assessed by NOAA are no longer subject to overfishing.
Oliver, the head of NOAA Fisheries, told the Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans that the U.S. had "effectively ended overfishing," allowing "room for flexibility" in applying annual catch limits (E&E Daily, Sept. 27).
Those are fighting words for many conservationists who worry the Trump team has already gone overboard in bowing to the demands of fishing groups.
"When they talk about flexibility, they’re really talking about rollbacks," said John Hocevar, a marine biologist and ocean campaigns director for Greenpeace USA.
An ideal spokesman?
Hilborn has plenty of fans, but he has faced accusations of industry bias.
Last year, he won the International Fisheries Science Prize at the World Fisheries Congress in Busan, South Korea, recognized for a 40-year-career of "highly diversified research" on behalf of global fisheries science and conservation.
"There aren’t many fisheries scientists in the country who can match Ray Hilborn," said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. "He’s the ideal spokesman for his field to educate Congress about how science informs fisheries management. Anyone who questions Ray’s professional or scientific integrity doesn’t understand how science works, at best."
But a study by Greenpeace last year found that Hilborn accepted more than $3.55 million from 69 commercial fishing and seafood interests to pay for his research from 2003 to 2015.
"It seems like he uses his genuine scientific credentials to make himself more valuable to industry as a spokesperson," said Hocevar. "On climate denial, there are a bunch of those guys. But with fisheries, Hilborn is the guy. … He’s the go-to, and there’s really no one else out there like him who will come out and talk about how we don’t need marine protected areas and how the real problem is underfishing, not overfishing."
Greenpeace gained access to University of Washington documents that showed Hilborn’s long and extensive links to fishing, seafood and other corporate groups by filing a request under the state’s public records law.
After Greenpeace complained that Hilborn had not properly disclosed his affiliations in all his published papers, the university investigated the issue and concluded Hilborn had not violated any of its policies.
But Hocevar said the issue is still relevant.
"He took millions of dollars from industry. … And studies have shown that where you get your funding from does create bias in terms of findings," Hocevar said.
Hilborn dismissed the criticism from Greenpeace.
"You know, they’re hopeless fundamentally," he said. "They’re basically a money-raising organization, and they have to scare people to raise money. They’re not interested in science at all. … Greenpeace has sort of put its cards on the table that fishing is a big deal, and they’re not going to raise money if people don’t believe that fishing is a threat."
Schedule: The hearing is Tuesday, Oct. 24, at 2:30 p.m. in 253 Russell.
Witnesses: Karl Haflinger, founder and president, Sea State Inc.; Ray Hilborn, professor, University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences; Michael Jones, professor, Michigan State University Quantitative Fisheries Center; and Larry McKinney, director, Texas A&M University Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.