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Networking: Ray Hilborn, Ph.D.

Fisheries scientist, University of Washington, Seattle Author, “Overfishing”

By James Wright
June 05, 2012

What Ray Hilborn has become known for saying, “go ahead and eat fish,” runs counter to what many ocean activists often tell us. Professor Hilborn, one of the world’s best-known and most respected fisheries scientists, was the man who brought much-needed sense to the global panic brought on by the infamous “2048” collapsing-global-fisheries study by German scientist Boris Worm, published in the journal Science in 2006. When the two men and their dissimilar scientific approaches eventually collaborated, they came to more sober, realistic conclusions. Their resulting 2009 study, “Rebuilding Global Fisheries,” was widely praised. 

The Palo Alto, Calif., native and Seattle resident since 1987 says his third book (“Overfishing,” co-written with his wife, Ulrike) is sure to upset groups that contend the oceans’ fisheries are in deep crisis from industrial exploitation. In it, Hilborn takes that often-misunderstood word, overfishing, and lays out its many definitions and dispels some of the myths about man’s marine pursuits. (Editor’s note: For the full interview, please visit SeafoodSource.com.) 

The U.S. government says all federally managed fisheries are sustainable. Do you agree?

Yup. We have a system that essentially assures sustainability. Even when you have stocks that are overfished, the law requires they be rebuilt. People tend to look at the status of a stock and ask, “Is it sustainable or isn’t it?” But sustainability doesn’t have anything to do with how many fish are there; it has to do with the management system. So you can have lots of fish, but if you have an unregulated fishery, it may not be sustainable. You can have very few fish, but if you’ve got a legal framework that requires rebuilding, that stock is going to be sustainably managed.

How important are catch shares as a tool in rebuilding fisheries?

In the project I did with Boris Worm and the group of 21 where we looked at the status of stocks, we could find no evidence of a silver bullet that some groups advocate — marine protected areas or catch shares — as either necessary or sufficient. The U.S. has done a fine job rebuilding stocks in systems without catch shares. 

Are politics interfering with the Common Fisheries Policy in Europe?

That’s a classic case of where they haven’t successfully distinguished between the science and the politics. They set very vague political objectives then they have the scientists do their work and then the politicians come back in and start tinkering with what the quotas should be. That’s exactly how it shouldn’t work. 

You’ve said “Overfishing” may be a bit bland, but not contentious. Do you feel the discussion about marine resources has trended in the opposite direction, and if so, has that harmed our understanding of fishing and its impacts?

Yes to both questions. The majority of books about the oceans will basically be litanies of horror stories. As I say in the introduction to “Overfishing,” I could do that too. But I could also give a litany of success stories and what I tried to do was be balanced and say look, “We’ve got good examples and we’ve got bad examples. Let’s learn from good examples, let’s do more of that.” 

The emphasis on the disasters of fishing has really dominated the conversation and has led lots of people to believe that fisheries are simply not sustainable. Essentially what they’re trying to do is throw the baby out with the bath water. They’re saying, “Fisheries management has failed. We need to get rid of our current management system and bring in something new.” And that something new might be a large-scale marine protected area, which is the most common NGO kind of solution. Or “ban trawling,” that’s a real common thing they say and what they don’t look at is the empirical record of fisheries that have been sustainable and contribute to world food security.

For an extended version of the Hilborn interview, available to SeafoodSource premium members, click here >

June 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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