Matt Nippert is a business investigations journalist.

Conservation group hits out at fish policy expert

Professor Ray Hilborn has advised the NZ fishing industry for years. Photo / Supplied
Professor Ray Hilborn has advised the NZ fishing industry for years. Photo / Supplied

Greenpeace has levelled conflicts of interest accusations at a scientist who played an important role in New Zealand fishery policies, after it emerged he had received more than $2 million from New Zealand industry groups.

University of Washington fisheries scientist Professor Ray Hilborn rejected the claims.

He has been a critic of Greenpeace, other environmental groups and researchers he accuses of overstating the impacts of fishing on marine life.

A Freedom of Information request by Greenpeace found that since 2003, Dr Hilborn received US$3.56 million ($5.2 million) in funding from fishing firms and industry groups, including US$273,886 from New Zealand.

The figures were included in the group's complaint this week with the University of Washington, claiming the funding was not adequately disclosed in journal articles, media interviews or opinion pieces.

Professor Hilborn's CV suggests funding from this part of the world is far higher than that information request details. He credits Seafood New Zealand and its predecessor bodies with providing six-figure payments annually between 1990 and 2007, amounting to around US$2 million.

Dr Hilborn told the Weekend Herald the funding was to enable Seafood New Zealand to build its own science capacity, and the project required him and several students spending several months a year here.

Tim Pankhurst, chief executive of Seafood New Zealand, said Dr Hilborn was funded as "one of the world's foremost fisheries scientists".

Greenpeace New Zealand executive director Russel Norman said it raised questions about transparency.

"Whether you're a government agency receiving advice, or publishing in an academic journal, or making public comment, people have a right to know you're being funded quite extensively by the fishing industry," he said.

One specific complaint made by Greenpeace concerned a 2006 article on orange roughy, arguing it could be sustainably fished, published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences which did not include acknowledgement of a specific grant months earlier from Seafood New Zealand to study that fishery.

Dr Hilborn provided references to six other journal articles where the support of Seafood New Zealand was acknowledged, but said he was at a loss to explain the omission.

"Greenpeace would argue it's a long-term pattern of deception, but I think the record shows that's not the case." The matter was now before a university committee for consideration, he added.

Dr Hilborn said he thought it was well-known who he worked for when he gave advice to the Government on stock levels.

A spokesman for the Ministry for Primary Industries said Dr Hilborn and other scientists were required to disclose affiliations, contractual arrangements and any conflicts of interests.

Matthew Dunn, associate professor of fish and fisheries at Victoria University of Wellington, who worked alongside Dr Hilborn, said the scientist was well known and respected internationally. "I never saw him as an industry advocate, he was just an industry-funded peer reviewer."

- NZ Herald

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