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A retraction is not enough

No one seems to want to take responsibility for flimsy science.

Patience may be a virtue but how long must we wait for a scientific journal to decide if it is going to retract a controversial paper that the US government, eminent fisheries scientists and industry executives say is a bunch of crap?

It has been more than a year – yes, I said a year – since US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Chris Oliver requested a retraction of the controversial scientific paper published in the journal Marine Policy that alleges a significant portion of Alaska salmon, crab and pollock is entering the Japanese market from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries.

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Last October, Oliver challenged the veracity of the scientific paper and asked that it be retracted to avoid damaging the reputation of the US fishing industry and its fisheries management. In December, a team of top US fisheries scientists, led by preeminent fisheries researcher Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington, joined the US government in demanding a retraction of the paper. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), under which the fisheries are certified sustainable, also came out in support of the industry.

In June, Hance Smith, editor of the journal Marine Policy, told IntraFish: “The status is simply that we have been waiting for additional reviews of the paper. I expect we shall be able to progress shortly.”

Shortly?

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On Monday, I asked Smith again for an update on the status of the paper and its possible retraction. I was told: “We are still waiting for a response from the corresponding author.”

Umm. OK. What?

Anyway, this is about more than getting a retraction. This is a scientific paper, that critics -- bonafide critics, not crackpots -- say is fundamentally flawed. And if that is not bad enough, it is eerily similar to a 2014 paper by the same researchers -- Tony Pitcher, Katrina Nakamura, and Ganapathiraju Pramod -- that provided estimates for IUU fish entering the US market. This report has been cited at least 59 times in academic reports and countless times in government and NGO reports. In other words, repeat the story enough times and it becomes unquestioned gospel.

The 2014 study was cited regularly by those supporting the creation of the US Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), which was indeed launched in January and requires a new level of record keeping by US importers aimed at eliminating IUU fish from the US seafood supply chain.

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I guess the obvious question is: Should the 2014 report's conclusions on the level of IUU fish entering the US market be similarly questioned as those in the recent Japan report, given the serious concerns about the veracity of the data and the commonality of both reports' authors?

The important question, however, is: Can any of the science in either report be trusted?

Made up

Hilborn, in December, said the paper at the heart of the current controversy cites several dozen published papers as sources yet none have any mention of IUU fishing. "The paper also lists a number of 'sources' of IUU such as 'unreported catch in artisanal fisheries' which do not exist," said Hilborn. "As near as we can tell, the paper made up all of its results without any data on IUU fishing."

NOAA's Oliver, in his October 2017 letter to the report's authors, said the "allegations made in the paper, are absent of transparency regarding the data, and assumptions supporting them are irresponsible and call into question the authors' conclusions."

The Japan study claims that an estimated 15 percent of the US pollock entering Japan is from IUU fisheries. Further, the study says between 10 and 20 percent of the salmon and crab coming from Alaska fisheries is IUU. In the paper, Pitcher and the other authors argue for the creation of a seafood traceability program in Japan to thwart what they claim is the importation of seafood produced by IUU fishing activity.

The paper was funded by the Walton Foundation, which has largely skirted the fray. "Independently, we are reaching out to talk with all of the parties to ensure we fully understand the issues," Barry Gold, director of Walton's Environment Program, said a year ago.

But Pitcher told me Tuesday in an email that "neither the Walton Foundation nor the Marine Stewardship Council has been in touch with us to ascertain the truth of the matter."

He also said he has a revised table showing "only 2 percent IUU from that US pollock fishery," and he says that the revised table "has been waiting to be inserted [into the paper] for almost a year now." In other words, the original 15 percent IUU estimate is wrong.

"The editor wants us to retract and then resubmit to include the new table, and despite our arguing that is not necessary as they can easily insert a correction, Ray Hilborn in Seattle has queered the pitch by a ridiculous letter accusing us of data fraud and absurd unprofessional threats that the journal will be 'exposed on his blog,'" Pitcher said in his email to me.

"My co-author has been travelling extensively (earning his living!), and so have I, so neither of us have had the time required to deal with this. We are aiming to get it done before Xmas."

What a mess.

Look, we need to be able to trust science, especially in this Trumpian era where science is dismantled, devalued and dismissed.

It's time for the editors of the Marine Policy journal to settle this issue so we don't allow flimsy science to contribute to the potentially unnecessary creation of another new traceability program in Japan, as it did for the new SIMP program in the US market.

Marine Policy editors need to retract the report, and while they are at it they need to look at the authors' 2014 report. And stop being careless with fisheries science.

Send comments to john.fiorillo@intrafish.com.

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