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Controversial IUU science paper finally retracted

More than a year after a US fisheries official and eminent scientists called for a retraction of the paper, the journal in which it was published relents.

A controversial science paper that the US government asked -- over a year ago -- be retracted has now, indeed, been retracted.

The controversial report, which alleges a significant portion of Alaska salmon, crab and pollock is entering the Japanese market from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries, was retracted just before Christmas by the Marine Policy journal, Tony Pitcher, one of the report's authors, told IntraFish on Wednesday.

The retraction came at the request of the editor of the journal, said Pitcher, a professor of fisheries science at the University of British Columbia.

"A revised version has been submitted, responding to points raised by three new peer reviewers for the journal," Pitcher told IntraFish in an email.

It remains unknown at this time who the peer reviewers are or when the revised version of the paper might be published.

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Long saga

It has been more than 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.”

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The paper, said its critics was fundamentally flawed, and 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.

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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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.

Pitcher told IntraFish in a November 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 at that time that he had 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 November email to IntraFish.

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