An Interview with Doctor Ray Hilborn

From the publisher: This article started out as a simple discussion about a scientist, Dr. Ray Hilborn, whose incredible research has changed contemporary thinking about fisheries management. Now, however, this article has turned into far more than a discussion because the good doctor took the time from his busy professional and personal life to help me put the source material for this article together.

The presentation that first introduced me to Dr. Hilborn was provided to me via a private teleconference. The title -- The Sustainability of America’s Fisheries: Will all fish really be done by 2048? -- got me ready for yet another horror story about how terrible my favorite thing to do is for the universe around me. Boy, was I in for an educaton. I hope the following article does for you what it did for me, because in writing it I gained a deep understanding of what's really going on in the world of fishery science. And Fishing Politics.

As a Professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, Doctor Ray Hilborn isn't the typical guy I find myself interviewing during the course of the week. More often-than-not, I'm talking to anglers, who, like Dr. Hilborn, love fishing but, unlike Dr. Hilborn, know little about the scientific side of our addictive pass-time.

Doctor Ray HilbornWhen I met Ray Hilborn at a media event held by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Foundation, two things jumped out. First: Hilborn’s findings were not in keeping with the media’s dark and gloomy perception of the state of global fisheries (which is that the fisheries are severely overfished and without immediate intervention from a centralized global entity they face extinction by 2050). Second: Here was a guy that not only knows the science side of fishing but also likes to fish for the creatures he loves so well. Dr. Hilborn is a soft-spoken and highly entertaining speaker. His "myth busting", regarding the media-heated public opinion about overfishing would have made me laugh if I didn't understand the impact these myths have had on fishing. Hilborn spoke of beliefs that have the stated purpose of stopping, or at the very least severely limiting, commercial as well as sports fishing.

Along with all the science one would need to see the intensity of his findings, the doctor identified the three most common myths, and why they're not what they appear. The beauty of how the doctor presented very complex and well-thought-out science about fish, and how measurements are based on the variables you use, came through in simple terms. As myths:

Myth #1: We begin fishing large valuable fish and move down the food web, ending up with jellyfish.

Not really. Hilborn cites two recent papers that show the mean trophic level (MTL), an indicator in which fish species are assigned a value according to where they fit in the food chain, has increased rather than decreased. Translation: Fish stocks have gone down a little, but not significantly. As regulations have (in some cases unnecessarily and based on computer-modeled “precautionary science and not real data) severely limited fishing in America, stocks have actually improved – in some cases dramatically.

Myth #2: The large fish of the ocean were 90% depleted by 1980.

Not so according to Hilborn’s data. It shows that the major tuna fisheries of the world (except Bluefin, the restoration of which is one of the Doctor's most important current endeavors) were not overfished in 2010. The biomass of some of these fish that can support their maximum sustainable yield (think how many can be harvested and still sustain the population) is less than it should be but not significantly so. Even the biomass of most (but definitely not all) tuna in the oceans is adequate, though the catches since 1980 have been three times the catches prior to 1980.

Myth #3: All fish will be gone by 2048.

No way. In areas where data was available (which doesn't include China and Africa), most studies indicate that exploitation of the fisheries has still left maximum sustainable yield levels of ocean fish. Translation: Fish populations are rebuilding, not depleting.

Now let's look at where the Myths about overfishing have come from.

Overfishing as Defined by Daniel Pauly

Doctor Daniel Pauly Image

Daniel Pauly; the author of “Fishing Down the Food Web” The document created a firestorm and provided a great deal of ammunition to global anti-fishing environmentalists. His work was later challenged by Hilborn and one of the original contributors, Boris Worm. The media wasn't interested; poor fish being made extinct by profit-hungry Americans is a far easier story to sell to a guilty public dying for a way to assuage their use of expensive SUVs.

In the 1990s a French Scientist named Daniel Pauly published what was quickly identified as the seminal work on fisheries, entitled Fishing Down the Food Web. Science being what it is, it didn't take long for the media to swallow his belief that the large predators (tuna and billfish like marlin or sailfish) were already largely depleted from the world's oceans. We use and cite the original from Science Magazine; you can find a dozen different versions with a simple search for the term. To read the original you have to register with basic information about why you want to read a scientific journal. We do recommend that you research this article on your own and make up your own mind as to who's right; Pauly with Worm or Hilborn with Worm disputing the original 'findings'.

Pauly received a wide range of prestigious environmental prizes for his work, including the half-million-dollar Cosmos prize -- essentially the Nobel Peace prize of the scientific community. If somebody invents a battery the size of a pin that will run a Chevy Volt for three years, they'll get the Cosmos. A cure for cancer is likely to make the list. It was the nineties, the polar caps were quickly melting because of evil westerners and their non-sustainable life styles, and Pauly's fear-based and scientifically-weak arguments found a guilt-driven and victim-starving audience.

Doctor Pauly's article in Science magazine presented charts, graphs, numbers, and an assortment of scientific jargon that spread like wildfire.

Daniel Pauly's Fishing Down the Food Web

Fishing Down the Food Web. The theory put forth by Daniel Pauly was that man first killed all the cool and good-looking fish, and once they had killed them all they move 'down the web' to uglier but more plentiful species. Then you kill them off and move down the chain until you end up with Jellyfish sandwiches. His paper proposed that many species – Tuna and Marlin among them -- had already been made nearly extinct, and that 10 were left for every 100 that were there in 1950. He was proven wrong by Hilborn and Boris Worm – one of the original people that had worked with Pauly -- but remains committed to his flawed science. So, too, does his global following .

During the time all the poor fish were being pulled from their pristine environments by greedy white guys with chromium steel hooks, the earth was apparently warming. The blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of western industrialized nations. Pauly and others showed how man had been raping the environment back to the days of stone tools. Put a GPS and bottom-sounding Sonar on a boat and one can only imagine where the pillaging ends. Soon after Pauly's “ground breaking” studies, another scientist who strongly supported his work — but had great looks and a great media persona — appeared on the scene by the name of Boris Worm. Boris' face on camera pumped the fish-are-endangered community into a frenzy. Articles about the imminent demise of all the world's scaly citizens reached a fever pitch. You can do a search today for "fish gone by 2048" and see for yourself. You'll find articles everywhere from restaurant napkins to WebMD based on Pauly's and Boris Worm's work. You can go to our YouTube source at youtube.com/TheOnlineFisherman and see presentations both by Worm and by Doctor Hilborn. There's plenty of videos on the site and the Playlists are growing every day. There are dozens about fishery management, and a special one specifically for Doctor Hilborn discussing fishery management for the New Zealand commercial fishing industry. I can't thank the Doc enough for actually spending so much time with me.

Faith-based Fishery Management

In the midst of the furor, not all scientific voices found Pauly's or Worm's work flawless and without question. In Pauly's own words “scientists should be skeptical”. But opposing scientific voices are oft-overlooked in the firestorm of “scientific consensus”.

Let's be adults and look at the idea of scientific consensus realistically. Most disproved theories were at one time the chatter of the scientific community. When a real scientist is shown by another that what they both once thought to be true was now – upon further evidence and analysis – shown to be wrong, they quickly and easily take part in debunking themselves. You can see it in the real world of honest (and skeptical) science since the dawn of the written word. However, in these days of the internet and YouTube, scientists seem to come to consensus at the click of a mouse button. And with the help of the media, drag an unsuspecting and well-meaning citizenry with them.

Among the leading fishery scientists in the world, Doctor Ray Hilborn had extensive lifelong experience on, around, and often in the water. He's known for his work with global fishery management, has worked around the world assessing and developing sustainable fishery management strategies, and catching fish. He works tirelessly in Alaska and Washington to help identify biological trends, and to apply his vast conservation knowledge and experience to something he loves to catch: Chinook Salmon (As we said, his personal and peer groups he's involved with have Bluefin Tuna under particular scrutiny. We might suggest you stop eating them for the foreseeable future. Trust the doctor; he's not prone to flying off at the handle).

When I asked the professor if he fished, he said “I'm a conservationist, Gary. We don't catch fish. I mostly catch them with a beach seine (a specialized net used by scientists to gather stock for data collection)”. Laughing, I said that there was the hint of somebody that did, in fact, love to fish. “I have a picture I have to show you, Gary.” The image – one of the doctor holding a 40lb Chinook taken on rod and reel near his field camp in the Aleutian wilderness – shows the same look of happy wonder that we see on so many faces on our web site.

Doctor Ray Hilborn and 40 lb Chinook Salmon

Doctor Ray Hilborn. Although he catches a lot of his fish for research and does so with seine nets, the professor of Aquatic Sciences and Conservation at Washington University caught this beautiful 40+lb chinook salmon on hook and line (I almost got the weight wrong. It was more important to the Doctor than the accuracy of my links to his academic works). Despite his comment that "I'm a conservationist, Gary, we can't CATCH fish" the doctor's been fishing since he was a kid growing up in San Francisco bay. He truly understands the passions we share for the sport and the economic impact of poorly-planned and "faith-based" fishery management more than anybody in the field.

Doctor Hilborn's assessment of the work done by Pauly and supported by Boris Worm was that fish stocks were not, in fact, headed for a dramatic global 'event' such as described in the 'Fishing down the Food Web” piece. The "Detente" between two men who had supported opposite interpretation of real-world data had come together -- as one would except scientists to do -- made scientific news all over the world. This one article alone pretty-much states the facts, and it comes from Duke University.

Mankind – particularly modern fishing techniques, where floating fish factories can remain self-sufficient while processing the ocean's resources for months (longer with on-water restocking and supply deliveries) – certainly had an impact on global species. But the mass destruction and widespread collapse of the fisheries were not, in fact, destined to be. Still, Pauly contended and still does that the fish were at 10% of their original pre-man-levels by 1990.

Hilborn's research – on the water and working in some cases for and some cases against global industrial entities and governments – showed that man's impact on the fisheries worldwide could certainly be managed and managed quite effectively. In fact, the doctor's studies showed that of all the places in the world, the United States was proving to be the best of all the fishery managers in the world.

While we both agreed that the Magnuson/Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act passed in 1996 (the nation's only fishery management act) was designed for the right reasons (to protect American waters from destructive foreign fishing fleets using equally destructive methodologies), it needs overhaul and much more user involvement to be what it was meant to be. In English? More anglers need to get involved and manage themselves correctly.

Working Together for the Common Good

Hilborn's first concern about Pauly and then Worm's work was the seeming lack of a willingness to consider the fact that perhaps the fish weren't all dead or about to be. What if one considered that fish stocks may very well have stabilized since the advent of sophisticated offshore gear? While such technological change certainly shifted the paradigm from one based on dead-reckoning (navigating by the stars) to one based on satellite imagery, what if since the major industrial modifications the fisheries had essentially stopped shrinking globally?

Hilborn did what any good scientist is supposed to do. He published an article called Faith-based Fisheries. In it, he questioned the impending death of all the sea's creatures save for jellyfish. He questioned how one could just assume everybody's right about something without checking the numbers? Fear, in the words of the doctor “is an effective revenue-raising strategy”.

When his work was reviewed and analyzed, the world (his world) couldn't and wouldn't just poo-poo his findings. They were analyzed and the scientific community listened with open ears.

Boris Worm and Pauly had different views of Hilborn's work. Pauly dismissed it as the ravings of a bought-and-paid-for pawn of the commercial fishing industry. His article “Aquacalypse Now” pretty-much stated where the famous Frenchman stood on having his work challenged. Especially by an American. Worm, on the other hand, acted like a true non-self-serving scientist, considered Hilborn's challenge to the original destruction-theory, and agreed to work with the professor from Washington. Their cooperative work (many of the world's leading fish scientists took part) was published in Science magazine (just like the original Pauly piece) and it rebutted the original Pauly findings. What was once the chatter of the scientific community has now been effectively disproved.

The Guy Behind the Science

Not only does Doctor Hilborn understand our passion, he's spawned more of us. His son Stefan operates a sports boat in Puget Sound, and clearly fish have been in the his son's blood from his youth. "I have a picture of him on my desk catching his first fish, Gary. It was 1980." His grandson Matthew is completely hooked. "Ever since he caught his first fish the sport became part of him. It's all he wants to do with any free time he has." I remember that kid, even though I've never met Ray's grandson Matthew. I remember the kid because I was that kid. So were you, I think.

Doctor Ray Hilborn's grandson Matthew Hilborn with PostGraduate Student

Grandson Matthew with one of the Doctor's Post Graduate students who's been a commercial fisherman and now does assessments for NOAA. Professor Hilborn is more than somebody who's given his life and professional career to fisheries and conservation; he's helped create more little anglers. We need more Matthews (in Hilborn's own words) “flailing the skies with a flyrod”.

Since the conversations I've had with the good doctor has extended into way more than fishing alone, I feel that I've come to know him in ways that don't often happen in one of our articles. The first 'shot' I took at this article resulted in ten corrections. I'm used to working with editors; the red-ink is no problem with me. What I realized, however, was how very little I really understood about what's going on. And about what we need to really do to rationally manage our fisheries.

“Open Access isn't a solution.” the doctor told me. My idea was that let the free markets make the decisions. Not the doctor. “You said (in my first attempt) that I didn't believe in 'top down' fishery management. That's not true.” I was surprised, but not for long. He went on to make his position perfectly clear – and at the same time make me question my sometimes stubborn beliefs. “It's not top down that is the problem, Gary. Top down makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the lack of proper balance in who is involved in the management process. User groups should have far more impact than they do. I understand how it happens and what's gone wrong, but we do need to manage the fisheries.” With that thought in mind, and the fact that it's hard to argue with Steve Jobs about the shape of an iPhone, I had to think that this conversation can't end here.

The critical political and ideological issue – and don't for a moment think they're not directly connected – is the Magnuson/Stevens Fishery Management act. The law is the only one of its kind, and whether you're part of the radical environmental left or a federalist with Constitution in hand, you have grievance with it. In theory, its original purpose – which was to protect American waters from destructive techniques applied by foreign vessels – was sound. Since then it's been rewritten with much of its purpose being political gain and revenue generation. Follow the money and you will find holes in the law-as-written that you can drive an army of sperm whales through without touching the sides.

The commonalities shared by someone like Doctor Ray Hilborn and me don't have anything to do with his stunning ability to both gather accurate information and bring together people of different positions for the common good of our communities. But individualism – and distrust for “consensus” thinking – combined with a love for the pull of a good fish gave birth to a friendship and my realizing how much we all need to learn from the Doctor's soon-to-be-released book Overfishing: What the World Needs to Know.

The doctor is a believer in Catch Shares even extending to the recreational fisherman. His discussions of what he calls “Reef Tenure” and the importance of top down – but user-based – management is something that I may very well not agree with. Then again I've learned what I know in a short year of being “active” in the politics of fishing. From this point forward, it's Ray Hilborn and the people he works with that I am going to learn from. We strongly suggest you do the same.

Thanks Doctor, for a wonderful experience and for opening all of our eyes to the whole truth.

Doctor Ray Hilborn is a professor in Washington State University's Aquatic and Fisheries Science Department and specializes in natural resource management and conservation. Among more than 200 peer-reviewed articles, the doctor's been published everywhere from the New York Times to Science Magazine. He and Carl Waters wrote and published “Quantitative Fisheries Stock Assessments” in 1992 and co-authored “The Ecological Detective; Confronting Models with Data” with Marc Mengel in 1997. “Detective” defines the problem faced by all anglers – recreational as well as commercial. And that's the difference between what a computer can be made to say and what real-world data displays to dedicated scientists. Ray serves on the Editorial Boards of seven journals including the Board of Reviewing Editors of Science magazine. He is recognized among his peers as one of the world's leading players in the world of conservation and fishery management. He's received the Volvo Environmental Prize, the American Fisheries Societies Award of Excellence, The Ecological Society of America's Sustainability Science Award, and The American Institute of Fisheries Research Biologists Outstanding Achievement Award. He is a Fellow of the Washington State Academy of Sciences, The Royal Society of Canada and The American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

 
 

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