A guide to avoiding misinformation…


Dr. Ray Hilborn has made a career refuting the scientific consensus that points to declining fisheries worldwide. Now, documents recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that Dr. Hilborn has received more than $3 million from commercial fishing and seafood interests. Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Source

Below is a media article published by well-known fisheries scientist from the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, Ray Hilborn. Dr. Hilborn has published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles in esteemed journals such as Science, however, in his recent contribution to Fox News, he targets specific audiences to provide misinformation, spinning the issue of ocean conservation in a web of confusion. In order to make changes to policy, the general public must be aware of the facts and misinformation is a simple way to skew the facts. As scientists, the public’s trust is also a vital part of progress.


Sometimes not taking the bait is difficult when it comes to misinformation; many times psychological techniques are used to ‘frame’ audience acceptance. Using the article below, I will point out common techniques of misinformation and audience psychology to help aid readers in making informed consumer decisions.

“Obama’s new ocean preserves are bad for the environment and for people.”

“Who wants to save the oceans? Short answer: everyone, especially politicians. A less frequently asked question is whether their high-profile efforts always work.

Right now, world leaders seem to want to see who can declare the biggest marine protected areas, or MPAs, in their territory. MPAs are kinds of national parks for sea life that extends from ocean surface to ocean floor. Commercial fishing and other undersea ventures are banned in them.

They are popping up everywhere. In August, President Obama announced one in the western Pacific Ocean that is 50 per cent bigger than Texas. In September he created another, more modest one off the coast of New England.

Britain announced yet another MPA in September around St. Helena Island in the south Pacific. It is half the size of the Lone Star State.”

Comment: Already we can see that the target audience has been established. The writer is likening the sizes of these MPAs to Texas, a state which anyone in the South can identify with, specifically by using its secondary name, the Lone Star State.

“In fact, the MPA movement has become a religion with accepted articles of faith that more and bigger are better.  This current obsession is bad for the oceans, bad for the global environment, and bad for people. “

Comment: Here are sprinkled two words with heavy connotations: religion and obsession. Obsession comes with it the assumption that the action is uncontrollable. We need our fix. We are no longer in control. Religion brings to mind similar notions and has always been seen as a separation between religious views and science. The author uses the negative connotations of these words to begin framing a mindset for the audience.

“Consider what the imposition of an MPA can do to the economy and livelihood of local fishers, who are unable to easily pick up and move elsewhere. Some fishermen in New England are warning that they could go out of business as a result of the new Atlantic marine preserve.”

Comment: Sympathy is now used to gain the approval of the audience. Is this a true statement? Yes. The local fisherman that can make it out to the areas that are being designated at MPAs may be impacted. You know how else fishermen in New England may go out of business? Overfishing. MPAs aim to reduce overfishing by protecting reproducing individuals. The author deliberately uses sympathy to rally an audience.


“Large MPAs are also bad for people because reducing ocean fish production by itself will mean less high quality, nutritious food available for the poorest people in the world and less employment for fishing-dependent communities.”

Comment: Again we see the sympathy card for the poorest people in the world. Is this statement true? No. MPAs are designed to protect reproducing individuals resulting in larger, more nutritious catches in populations that migrate out of MPAs (a well-documented process called ‘the spillover effect’). Moving on to the second half of that statement, reduced employment for fishing-dependent communities. In regions such as Hawaii, where Obama has just recently created the largest MPA in the world, local fisherman worried that such an MPA would put them out of business. However, only the industrial fisheries, with large tankers and open ocean-going vessels were the ones capable of fishing that far away from the land (at least 200 miles from the populated islands). So are the poorest people really the ones in danger?

“Political leaders argue they are protecting the oceans with MPAs, but mostly they aren’t. The major threats to ocean health and biodiversity, including global warming, ocean acidification, oil spills, floating masses of plastics, pollutant run-off from land, and illegal fishing–all are not addressed by this conservation measure.”

Comment: A classic argument. There is so much going on that is causing problems and this conservation measure only addresses one. True.

Imagine a fighting match. You are up against Mike Tyson, Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone.

Could you take on one at a time? Maybe. Probably not. Could you take on all of them at once? Absolutely not. Now imagine that Mike Tyson is global warming, Jackie Chan is ocean acidification, Arnold Schwarzenegger is pollution, and Sylvester Stallone is illegal fishing. We may not be able to deal with all of them at once, or even the stronger ones individually, but we can deal with overfishing in certain areas. We must address the problems that we can given the time and resources available. Obama can use the Antiquities Act to create MPAs, so addressing conservation is a great first step.

“Ocean preserve  advocates emphasize that about one-third of global fish stocks are overfished, and use that as a reason for ever-larger MPA designations.  But there is also no evidence that MPAs actually increase the abundance of fish outside of the reserves, one of the chief motives proponents invoke to push for them.”

Comment: This is an ironic statement coming from a well-known fisheries and resource management scientist. Is it true? No. There is a wealth of peer-reviewed literature nowadays supporting the spillover effect of established MPAs (Source1 , Source2, Source3, Source4, Source5, etc.).


Here is a figure demonstrating “fishing the line,” where fishermen crowd the border of an MPA as they literally wait for bigger fish to spill over. Source

“Fishing the line” is another way we know that MPAs produce viable fish stocks as a long-term investment. In many areas local fisherman wait eagerly at the border of an established MPA in order to benefit from the spillover effect.

All it takes is thirty seconds of searching on Google Scholar. Here is an interesting one with Ray Hilborn as the lead author: Source6. It states that “marine reserves are a promising tool for fisheries management and conservation of biodiversity.” Interesting.

“MPA advocates like to use the analogy of a fish bank, and it works up to a point.  Certainly, fishery abundance rises inside well-managed areas that are closed to commercial fishing.

But without other measures to address  fishing effort, the same commercial boats that used to ply the newly protected waters can simply move across the boundary, increasing fishing pressure outside the MPA, although at increased cost. And fish don’t recognize MPA boundaries. They move beyond them.

Comment: This is true. But it is also the point of MPAs. If we can protect areas where breeding populations aggregate, for instance, or areas of high diversity, then fish will move out of those boundaries, creating the desired spillover effect the author discredited earlier.

In truth, some  MPAs can provide biodiversity benefits and increases in fish harvests in places that lack more comprehensive fisheries management.

Unfortunately those are the same places where MPAs are also often difficult or impossible to enforce, due to the cost of surveillance and of any legal efforts to bring offenders to justice. “

Comment: Here is another use of framing psychology. The writer states a fact, but then turns the argument using an ‘unfortunate’ case of creating more problems than it is solving. Is this true? No. When the marine reserve (Papahanaumokuakea) in the northwest Hawaiian islands was first formed, it was 140,000 square miles. Obama recently expanded it to 583,000 square miles. Before, it would have been much easier for illegal fishing vessels to sneak into the monument. With the expansion, vessels would have to travel over twice the distance to reach those same fishing grounds. By extending the border, the MPA is actually more effective against illegal fishing. Technology nowadays has also led to an increased level of surveillance, even in remote locations; everything from underwater sound monitoring buoys, satellites that can track wake signatures of vessels, wave-powered drones, and Coast Guard patrols all make enforcement less of an issue.

“A bigger fact is that in U.S. waters, fish stocks are increasing, and overfishing is declining rapidly, without a significant number of MPAs.”

Comment: Is this true? Somewhat. Certain fish stocks are increasing, such as Cod in the Atlantic. Why? Because years ago it was overfished to the point of collapse and finally a moratorium was placed on it in 1992. Since then a recovery has been documented. In terms of overfishing, it may be declining in some instances without MPAs since regulation may occur at other levels. For example, restrictions to gear that can be used to harvest individuals may limit overfishing, or restricting total catch allowances, but overall overfishing threatens most species.

“Why?  For one thing, we already have a myriad of well-enforced laws that protect fish stock health and marine biodiversity very well, through a science-based management system. They do it better than simply closing off large sections of the ocean.”

Comment: The author insinuates that creation of MPAs such as Papahanaumokuakea were not influenced by science, but rather, strictly a political agenda. Teams of scientists were involved in the creation of such MPAs.

“Around the world we see fish stocks increasing in abundance when fisheries management is effectively applied, without MPAs playing a significant role.  Fish stocks in the U.S., Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have all been shown to rebuild from overfishing through traditional fisheries management —  we don’t need MPAs to rebuild fish stocks.

Comment: Another classic argument. Just like I don’t need a healthy diet to lose weight and stay fit. But it sure would be helpful.

“In reality, redirecting hundreds of millions of dollars spent on MPA advocacy towards other threats to the ocean, or to improving fisheries management globally, would provide much more comprehensive and proactive protection.”

Comment: What?! Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on advocacy?? I haven’t seen a dime of that. Neither did any of the scientists or ‘advocates’ of MPAs.

“The MPA advocacy movement needs to embrace the reality that closing ever-larger areas of the ocean to fishing, when it happens, should be guided by clearly stated objectives, independent scientific evaluation of alternatives, and public consultation on the impacts on people.”

Comment: Finally, we are agreed.

“MPAs should be established where the problems are, not where it is politically expedient.  A race to see who has the biggest or the most is running in the wrong direction.”

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