Science, by its nature, is expected to have a high level of precision. Guessing is frowned upon, for good reason.
But precision, or the lack there of, is at the heart of a nearly two-year controversy regarding a controversial scientific paper that alleged a significant portion of Alaska salmon, crab and pollock is entering the Japanese market from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries.
The original paper, published in the Marine Policy journal, was assailed by the US pollock industry and the US government, both groups saying its authors made false conclusions based on what amounts to guesswork and sloppy science. Even the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) condemned the report and its conclusions, in defense of the MSC-certified Alaska pollock fishery.
The paper was ultimately retracted just before Christmas by the Marine Policy journal. The retraction came at the request of the editor of the journal, said Tony Pitcher, a professor of fisheries science at the University of British Columbia, and one of the authors of the report.
In February, a revised version of the report was submitted and ultimately published, as a way of trying to clarify errors in the original research.
Well, let’s just say it didn’t, at least not in the eyes of leading fisheries researchers and US government officials who this week published a response to the revised report in the Marine Policy journal.
Led by preeminent fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington, the response to the revised report pulls no punches; its title says it all: “Pramod et al. methods to estimate IUU are not credible.”
Its conclusion is even more scathing: “In summary we find that the estimates in the Pramod et al. paper fail basic common sense (discarded fish arriving in Japan) and scientific standards of using supporting source documents and corroborating results with known data. No convincing, verifiable information is available to support Pramod et al.'s claim about Alaska Pollock. It is simply impossible for readers or reviewers to evaluate their estimates and this fails all standards for scientific publication.”
We have reported extensively on this controversy (Click here for our complete coverage of this issue) because reports of this magnitude can have a great bearing on the cost of doing business for seafood companies.
The scientific paper, which Hilborn and other fisheries experts and US fisheries regulators say is fundamentally flawed, 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.
Worse yet, the 2014 study was cited regularly by those supporting the creation of the US Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), which was 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 – which means more traceability costs for seafood companies to absorb.
In this Trumpian age of anti-science, it is more important than ever that any science out there that deals with marine environment issues and the global trade of seafood be able to stand up to rigorous peer review and be as precise as possible.
So now, after nearly two years of scrutiny, a retraction of the original paper, followed by a rewrite that basically, according to Hilborn and others, simply repackages the same disputed data, it appears the assertions of this paper will live on in infamy -- proving how hard it is to kill misinformation, scientific or not, once it flows out into the universe.
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