Retraction of flawed MPA study implicates larger problems in MPA science

8 December 2021, by Max Mossler, Sustainable Fisheries UW

After months of public criticism and findings of a conflict of interest, a prominent scientific paper (Cabral et al. 2020, A global network of marine protected areas for food) was recently retracted by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

A retraction is a Big Deal in science, especially from a prominent journal. What’s strange in this story is how the conflict of interest intersects with science. The conflict of interest was apparent immediately upon publication, but it wasn’t until major problems in the underlying science were revealed that an investigation was launched, and the paper eventually retracted.

Cabral et al. 2020 claimed that closing an additional 5% of the ocean to fishing would increase fish catches by 20%. That snappy statistic made for a great headline—the paper was immediately covered by The EconomistForbesAnthropocene Magazine, and The Conversation when it was published in October 2020. It made its way through the popular press (the New York Times, Axios, National Geographic, and The Hill have all cited the paper), and eventually into the U.S. congressional record—it was submitted as supporting evidence for a bill by then-Representative Deb Haaland, now the Secretary of the Interior. Cabral et al. 2020’s Altmetric Attention Score, a measure of how widely a scientific paper is shared, is in the top 5% all-time.

But with increased press comes increased scrutiny. Several close collaborators of the Cabral et al. group wrote scientific critiques that PNAS published earlier this year. The critiques pointed out errors and impossible assumptions that strongly suggested the paper was inadequately peer-reviewed.

Read the full post on the Sustainable Fisheries website.

Max Mossler
Max studied environmental perception & policy in grad school. He thinks a lot about how other people think about the planet. He is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.