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NOAA official: Debunked IUU report threatened Alaska's reputation

NOAA's Chris Oliver is grateful for the retraction of a controversial science paper that threatened the reputation of Alaska seafood, and he hopes it doesn't happen again.

Now that a controversial paper alleging an estimated 15 percent of Alaska seafood is entering the Japanese market from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries has been retracted, the US government official who demanded the withdrawal of the report is speaking out.

"Marine Policy did the right thing by retracting an erroneous study that could have undermined the reputation of fisheries which abide by, and are held to, the robust stewardship standards of US fisheries management," Chris Oliver, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, told IntraFish.

In October 2017, Oliver requested a retraction of the controversial science paper published in the journal Marine Policy that alleged a significant portion of Alaska salmon, crab and pollock entered the Japanese market from IUU fisheries.

A retraction is not enough

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Two months later, 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), which certifies some of the fisheries mentioned in the report, also came out in support of the industry.

Fourteen months later, in December 2018, the paper was retracted at the request of the editor of the science journal. At that time, Tony Pitcher, a professor of fisheries science at the University of British Columbia, and one of the report's authors, said a revised version of the report had been submitted, responding to points raised by three new peer reviewers for the journal.

On Thursday, Pitcher told IntraFish the revised article has been accepted by Marine Policy, but has yet to be published.

Controversial IUU science paper finally retracted

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Although the new version of the paper will no doubt endure further scrutiny from fisheries officials and industry, the controversy has brought unwanted attention to the report's methodology and the peer-review process used to vet its conclusions.

"Our fisheries management system relies on the integrity of science and a robust peer review process," Oliver said. "The global reputation of US seafood as sustainable has been earned through many years of ensuring that management and policy decisions are based on the best available science, and we take protection of scientific integrity very seriously."

Walton's scrutiny

The paper was funded by the Walton Foundation, which hired a team of fisheries scientists to conduct an independent review of the methodology and results. This was the first time the foundation has given a research paper this level of additional scrutiny, Walton Foundation's Justin Kenney told IntraFish last November. The status of the NGO's review remains unclear. Calls for clarification had not been returned by publication.

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."

Pitcher also said at the time 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."

The original report estimated that as much as 15 percent of Alaska seafood entering the Japanese market was from IUU fisheries.

NOAA's Oliver, meanwhile, while pleased with the retraction, is still concerned the flawed science will live on despite the corrections.

"We are very pleased and appreciative that Marine Policy has retracted this paper, and hope that its erroneous claims about seafood exports to Japan will not be perpetuated in future articles," he told IntraFish.

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