CFOOD Seeks to ‘Set the Record Straight’ on Seafood Sustainability

Samantha Andrews
17 December 2015, at 12:00am

US - When Pew Environment, an arm of the American-based non-profit Pew Trusts who seek to use evidence-based, non-partisan analysis to solve todays challenges tweeted an image stating about 90 per cent of the worlds fisheries are in decline, they were probably not expecting to be on the receiving end of an exasperated fisheries scientist. Not 90 per cent in decline, 61 per cent fully fished + 29% overfished.

And fully fished means sustainably fished, not “in decline”“, Professor Trevor Branch who is based at the University of Washington responded.

Professor Branch is referring to the same statistics as Pew – those released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and indeed is quite right in what he says. “It’s as if 29 per cent of fisheries overfished is too small of a number to bother the public with.

It is not. We need to get that number way down”.

According to the FAO ‘fully fished’ means that the stock is at or extremely close to the maximum sustainable yield – the measure which the FAO use to determine stock status. Whilst this measure is somewhat controversial among scientists and NGOs for a variety of reasons, we have to be careful not to misinterpret what the measure and the statistics are telling us. Sometimes the problem is that information presented to the public is a little outdated.

We can still find claims that the world’s fisheries will collapse by 2048 (a date that gained fame primarily from a university press release covering a peer-reviewed paper) even though the ultimate collapse of all fisheries has been refuted by a number of scientists (including the original authors).

Ensuring that the information presented to the public is as up to date and accurate as possible isn’t just a question of honesty.

It could potentially redirect action away from other efforts that can achieve healthier oceans - and healthier fisheries.

Enter Collaborative for Food from Our Oceans Data (CFOOD), a collaboration of fisheries management scientists and other fisheries experts who aim to ‘set the record straight’ on seafood sustainability.

The brainchild of Professor Ray Hilborn, a fisheries scientist at University of Washington, CFOOD’s model is fairly simple. Behind the scenes are two graduate students based at University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs - Max Mossler and Jack Cheney.

They manage the projects website ( and Twitter feed (@cfoodUW), and also keep an eye on news stories relating to fisheries.

Short summary on relative stories along with a link to the original piece are put together, and then distributed to CFOODs network of fisheries experts (currently around 80 from various institutions around the world), who chose which stories to critique or comment on. Critiques are then posted up on the CFOOD website/Twitter for public viewing and comment. It is not just new stories or NGO reporting that is under CFOOD’s watchful eye. Peer-reviewed publications from scientists have been scrutinized too.

Some of the issues CFOOD are dealing with are not necessarily as black and white as misrepresenting FAO statistics, and their critiques and comments may be under just as much scrutiny than the pieces they are themselves critiquing. CFOOD’s approach takes its lead from science itself – don’t attack the message, but focus on the methods and the underlying assumptions.

“Some of the things that we post and some of the people we challenge (Sylvia Earle) are unconventional”, Max Mossler explained, “but we always have the data to back up the information we present”.

For example, when Professor Robert Arlinghaus (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) took issue with claims that fish feel pain, he backed up his argument as why they don’t with scientific literature linked to each point. Science may be the name of the game, but crucially these posts are written for the layperson.

“Many sustainable seafood websites treat the reader as a consumer, we want to treat our readers as information-seekers”, Max Mossler commented. Jack Cheney points out that information seekers are also people more familiar with the issues.

“Max, myself and even Ray are learning so much while we create and maintain this website, and I think the same can be said for our expert commentators”.

Professor Hilborn’s vision of CFOOD goes beyond questioning news stories and recent publications. In the works are histories of ‘classic fisheries’ - quick summaries of fisheries that have either been important in forming fishery policy, or have been at the receiving end of substantial media attention.

Expect to see this section starting with California Sardine and Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. In the future, readers will also be able to review the status of fish stocks in different region based on data from the RAM Legacy Stock Assessment Data Base, which hosts a vast array of information on commercially fished species.