In fall of 2018 Defra (UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) advertised for a Senior Policy Fellow – Marine to work with Prof Ian Boyd (Chief Scientific Advisor) and his team to develop a systems approach to thinking about marine evidence. I applied for the position and have been awarded the fellowship! For two days per week I’ll be seconded into Defra, though I will still be based here at the University of Plymouth. The systems research programme is new and innovative and aims to drive the development and use of quality science to shape key Defra policies and the fellowship is both prestigious and influential. This is a particularly exciting time to be involved as the work that we will be doing will help to shape the UK’s environmental management after we leave the EU.
My fellowship, therefore, is all about increasing our
capacity to make good decisions about how we manage the environment. I’ll be
working with Defra colleagues but also further developing partnerships outside
the civil service with the goal of increasing the scientific evidence base
available for decision making. There is a lot of great science happening in the
UK that just doesn’t get into the decision making process, but there are also
research gaps that we need to fill to make good decisions. I will work to
facilitate the transfer of science into evidence for decision making and also
to identify research gaps along with opportunities to fill these gaps. I will
learn loads, too, as I gain further experience in marine fisheries, pollution,
and invasive species, in addition to my expertise in biodiversity science and
I’m particularly interested in getting to better understand
the internal workings of the civil service. I’ve worked closely with civil
servants and policy makers for 10 years on evidence provision, but always from
the academic side, rather than from the policy side. I am looking forward to
learning more about how the civil service works, what happens to science as it
becomes evidence, how the Defra prioritises its work, and how different bits of
government join up.
I am really excited about the amazing high-level opportunity
to be embedded in Defra and can’t wait to get started!
The last three years have seen some serious political upheaval in the European region, Brexit being perhaps the pinnacle of that. It’s an issue on which everyone has an opinion and which no one seems to have any answers to. So I thought that this week I’d try to put together a synthesis of sorts on how Brexit will possibly affect the ecological science community. Below are a series of links to articles that describe the affect of Brexit on, and responses by, the ecological community.
The UK practices evidence-based environmental policy making, where scientific data and research play a key role in informing decisions about how we manage the environment. Much of the UK’s scientific knowledge, however, lies outside of Parliament and Government. Parliamentary Inquiries are one mechanism which brings external expertise about particular issues into Parliament. In December 2019, I provided oral evidence as witness in the House of Commons as part of the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry scrutinising the new Fisheries Bill. The UK Fisheries Bill is the plan for how the UK will manage our fisheries once we leave the EU Common Fisheries Policy, a subject which has been a high profile and controversial aspect of Brexit. Committees find oral witnesses in several ways, such as through calls for written evidence, for example, but the Committee invited me based on my reputation in marine conservation and my ability to speak about science in non-technical language. A Committee representative briefed me in advance on topics about which I would be interrogated. I then prepared by reading (and rereading) the new Fisheries Bill and explanatory notes, the previously-published Fisheries White Paper, media articles about UK fisheries, and books and literature around fishing and MPAs. I also consulted colleagues with Parliamentary, fisheries policy, and legal expertise to ensure that I thoroughly understood the Bill and how it links to conservation. Additionally, I notified my MP (Luke Pollard – Shadow Fisheries Minister) that I would be appearing. Every time I’ve appeared as a witness or speaker in Parliament I’ve notified my MP so that he is aware of my involvement, as his constituent. I later found out he watched my testimony and then used it as evidence during a different part of the scrutiny procedure, which was pretty amazing!
On the day of the Committee session, I arrived at the Palace of Westminster and met the other witnesses, some of whom I already knew, outside the Committee room. We chatted about the Bill until we were called in to testify. During preparation I’d outlined clear notes (colour-coded by topic for quick reference – what a nerd) and I brought these up with me during my examination. The Committee isn’t there to trap or trick the witnesses, but to increase their level of understanding on a subject, so it’s fine to refer to notes or to ask to do further research before responding later in writing. I tried to speak slowly and clearly, without using jargon, when responding to Committee questions, and I made sure to make my point first before backing it up with evidence. It is definitely intimidating facing a semi-circle of MPs in a very formal setting, and knowing that your testimony is being broadcast live online and will remain viewable forever. However, I tried to remind myself that I was the expert and I knew what I was talking about, and the Committee was interested in my opinion and the evidence supporting it. Acting as a witness isn’t a contest to demonstrate that you know the most about a subject, but it is an opportunity to help deliver science directly into the policy process as targeted and specific evidence.
My main concern with the Bill was the lack of mandate for achieving sustainable fishing. The Common Fisheries Policy requires EU Member States to fish sustainably by 2020. The UK’s new Fisheries Bill, however, only has sustainability as an objective, with no legal requirement. If we don’t manage our fisheries sustainably we may seriously damage our fishing industry. Michael Gove, Secretary of State of the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, declared that the UK should lead the world in sustainable fishing. That may not happen, though, if sustainability is treated as an optional objective rather than legally mandated. The good news is that the bill is still in review, with amendments under consideration to improve its sustainability. You can track the bill’s progress here.
Being directly involved in decision making in this way was an amazing experience, and when the EFRA Committee’s report on the Fisheries Bill Inquiry was published I was excited to see they’d recommended improvements based on my (and other witnesses’) testimony. I was also interviewed on local radio and for the regional newspaper about my contribution, raising the profile of my research, sustainable fishing, and my University. Although appearing as an oral witness in Parliament is scary and requires significant preparation, the reward of helping improve environmental management and conservation is definitely worth it. The Fisheries Bill will be further scrutinised and hopefully improved before it becomes law. Getting this right is important to the future of UK seas, so look out for further updates about the Bill both here on Plankton and Policy and on my Twitter (@anaturalstate).
Indicators are effective tools for summarising and
communicating key aspects of ecosystem state and have a long record of use in
marine pollution and fisheries management. The application of biodiversity
indicators to assess the status of species, habitats, and functional diversity
in marine conservation and policy, however, is still developing and multiple
indicator roles and features are emerging.
In June 2018, my colleagues and I convened a symposium and
focus group entitled “From science to evidence – innovative uses of
biodiversity indicators for effective marine policy and conservation” as part
of the 5th
International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC5) in Kuching,
Malaysia. We used the sessions as an opportunity to form a community of
practice for both users and developers of biodiversity indicators for marine
policy and conservation, and to provide a forum to share successes and failures
in developing and applying these indicators. Themes quickly emerged which are
common across geographic regions and political scales and our
new paper exploring these has just been published.
do we mean by ‘biodiversity’ indicators?
We quickly realised that although indicators are commonly
used in marine conservation and policy, the term ‘biodiversity’ means different
things to different people. Some interpret ‘biodiversity’ broadly to mean all
species and habitats in an ecosystem (as in the Convention on Biological
Diversity) and others understand ‘biodiversity’ to mean simply the number of
taxa. These different interpretations can lead to confusion among scientists
An analysis of
> 2500 abstracts pulled from the Web of Science revealed a difference in
treatment of the term ‘biodiversity indicator’ between academic scientists,
marine policy-makers and managers (Fig 1). In publications on marine systems, ‘ecosystem
indicator’ is used more commonly and synonymously with ‘biodiversity indicator’,
though the use of ‘biodiversity indicator’ is increasing (see Fig. 1a). It also
appears that the purpose, region, or policy context influences the
interpretation of the term ‘biodiversity’. At times ‘biodiversity’ is indeed used
for diversity indices such as species richness, dominance, or evenness, and
these are useful metrics for describing some aspects of ecosystem change.
However, ‘biodiversity’ is
increasingly used to reflect a much broader ecosystem view. This broader
definition includes trophic interactions, network structure and system
stability, or resilience, is in line with the Convention on Biodiversity’s
definition of ‘biodiversity’, above, and is often used by applied scientists,
policy-makers, and managers. It is this second definition of ‘biodiversity’
that we adopted for our work, due to its frequency of use in conservation.
terminology, the role of biodiversity indicators in marine conservation policy
and management is also evolving. For example, some operational
biodiversity indicators trigger management action when a threshold is reached,
while others play an interpretive, or surveillance, role in informing
management. For indicators to be used operationally, they should be responsive
to environmental change, demonstrate a clear pressure-state relationship, and
be linked to identified targets and thresholds. Where these criteria are not
met, biodiversity indicators can deliver a valuable ‘surveillance’ role.
Surveillance indicators are not assessable against quantitative thresholds, but
can still provide contextual information on either wider ecosystem impacts of
pressures or underlying environmental change (see
also Bedford et al. 2018).
What do policy makers and managers need
from biodiversity indicators?
Biodiversity indicator development
and application is not a straightforward process. To be useful for policy or
management, indicators must be linked clearly to policy or management
objectives. Indicators, however, are often developed in academia, outside the
policy process, and may therefore be suitable for monitoring change but not
explicitly linked to objectives or practitioners may simply never find out
about some indicators. A solution is to co-produce indicators, with scientists
and stakeholders collaborating to ensure indicators are scientifically robust
and meet policy or management needs.
Obtaining the right sort of data is also a challenge for managing marine biodiversity. Many marine biodiversity datasets are restricted in geographic area, usually focusing on coastal regions. Modelling or interpolation may be useful for filling in spatial gaps. Data are expensive to collect and it is therefore important to select or design indicators that allow the use of existing datasets; this is economical and also preserves and extends time-series. One solution is to combine or repurpose existing datasets to populate an indicator, revealing additional information for management without starting a new survey.
For biodiversity indicators to be useful for management,
they must measure progress toward policy goals. Identifying reference
conditions against which to measure change and setting targets representing
goal achievement can be difficult, however. Reference conditions can be
constructed based on spatial or time-series data or using models allowing
targets to be set at an acceptable distance from the reference conditions. Additionally,
trend-based approaches to target setting can allow the measurement of change
directionally, without the need reach a specified endpoint.
for communicating biodiversity indicators
No matter how scientifically robust a biodiversity indicator is, if that indicator cannot be effectively communicated policy makers or managers, it will not be useful in assessing the state of the ecosystem. The target audience must be identified so indicator communication can be tailored to its needs (Fig. 2). ‘Policy makers’ is a generic term for a diverse group of decision makers at multiple levels, including local councillors, environmental managers, civil servants, MPs and ministers. Each of these subgroups uses biodiversity indicators in different ways to support decisions and so requires information in various formats with different levels of detail and specificity. For example, an ‘on the ground’ manager requires more detail than a minister who only needs high level information. Regardless of the policy audience, biodiversity indicator communication must be clear, transparent, and easy to understand.
The UK has 15 National Parks. All of these are terrestrial
and celebrate our moors, mountains, and broads. Unlike other countries like
Malaysia, Greece, India, Thailand, and Costa Rica, amongst others, as of spring
2019 the UK does not have any National Marine Parks. This is a missed
opportunity as the UK’s marine waters are amazingly biodiverse and important to
our heritage and wellbeing.
My research group at the University of Plymouth has recently published a paper in Marine Policy exploring how a type of Marine Park, called a ‘City Marine Park’ due to its focus on coastal cities globally, can enhance the many benefits of living by the sea. Firstly, a City Marine Park does not set out to further regulate or conserve the marine environment. Instead, a City Marine Park seeks to recognise an ocean and coastal space for its special importance for city community health, well-being, and heritage. The intention of a City Marine Park is to encourage greater prosperity for the region and get people enjoying the coast and sea, with the hope this engagement will encourage a better understanding, appreciation, and care for the marine environment. A City Marine Park will encourage pride in the local marine environment and the adjacent community, and, hopefully, increase sustainability and well-being for local citizens. In fact, City Marine Parks, as part of a global blue urbanism movement for happier and healthier cities, have the scope to help address multiple Sustainable Development Goals (Fig. 1).
So, back to Plymouth. Plymouth is not a wealthy city. In some of our most socio-economically deprived areas children grow up without ever visiting the seaside, even though it is only a few miles away. A National Marine Park can provide the infrastructure to enable local schools to bring their students to the sea. Adding an educational element to the Plymouth seafront can encourage local citizens to learn about our marine waters and hopefully foster a sense of pride in our marine environment (Fig. 2).
Well in England’s South West is the county that’s best, full of rolling green hills and a coast that’s been blessed, and inside of the Sound lie the three Plymouth towns, where everyone’s known as a Janner. Janners, Janners, down in Plymouth we’re all known as Janners.
Indeed, we are blessed with an amazing coastline here in Plymouth. I love Plymouth and I’m proud to be (an honorary) Janner. I hope that creating the country’s first National Marine Park right here in Plymouth will highlight the amazing marine environment of Britain’s Ocean City.
Abigail, Plankton and Policy
Read more: Pittman, S.J., Rodwell, L.D., Shellock, R.J., Williams, M., Attrill,
M.J., Bedford, J., Curry, K., Fletcher, S., Gall, S.C., Lowther, J.,
McQuatters-Gollop, A., Moseley, K.L. and Rees, S.E., (2019). Marine parks for
coastal cities: A concept for enhanced community well-being, prosperity and
sustainable city living. Marine Policy. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.02.012
EU Member States are required to assess the Good
Environmental Status (GES) of their pelagic habitats under the Marine
Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). OSPAR has coordinated this
process in the Northeast Atlantic, supporting the development of a suite of three
plankton indicators, which were published as part of the OSPAR
Initial Assessment and remain in further development:
PH2: Changes in phytoplankton biomass and zooplankton
PH3: Changes in plankton diversity (pilot study)
The last indicator, PH3, is currently in its pilot phase,
and focuses on phytoplankton change. Our new paper, led by Dr Isabelle Rombouts,
reviews our method and the first application of the indicator.
First, the technical information: PH3 is a multi-metric
indicator describes the structure of the phytoplankton community (alpha
diversity) and detects significant temporal changes (beta diversity) in the
three stations in the Western Channel. We selected the Menhinick (taxa
richness) and Hulbert (dominance) Indices as two complementary alpha diversity
indices which are strongly related to habitat characteristics and which are
easy to communicate to non-scientists. Temporal shifts (species turnover) in
phytoplankton community structure were examined using the Local Contribution to
Beta Diversity (LCBD; a beta diversity index), followed by the Importance Value
Index (IVI) which identified taxa with the highest contribution to the
“unusual” community structure.
So what did we find?
This first application of the PH3 indicator is a pilot study, or proof of concept. We used data from three French stations to develop, test, and validate the indicator. This is a surveillance indicator which is useful to describe the phytoplankton community structure and detect temporal changes (species turnover) within a time-series. We found that periods of high dominance were also identified as periods of significant turnover in species. In these cases the IVI indicated dominance of a single species, as a monospecific bloom. Such high biomass of a single taxa can be the result of either nutrient inputs or changing environmental conditions. The pressures causing such change may be species specific, and pressure data are required to further investigate what causes of change. Once drivers of change are identified, the policy measures needed to maintain or achieve GES can be examined.
As with any indicator, appropriate data are required to
ensure confidence in detecting and interpreting change. Maintaining taxonomic
expertise is critical to analysing the plankton data needed for PH3.
Without this important skill base it would be impossible to construct and
populate any plankton indicators. This work demonstrates how our indicator
works with phytoplankton data from fixed point stations. In the future it would
be useful to test this method with zooplankton data as well as spatially
extensive datasets, such as the Continuous Plankton Recorder survey.
As we further develop and better interpret our suite of
plankton indicators the robustness of the evidence base used for decision
making increases. It is this evidence base that is required to support good
decision making about how we use and manage the Northeast Atlantic marine
Change in plankton communities can affect the functioning of marine ecosystems. Plankton play a critical role in global oxygen production (one out of every two breaths we take was produced by phytoplankton!), are integral to nutrient and carbon cycling, and form the base of the entire marine foodweb. Marine ecosystems can be profoundly altered when plankton communities change, whether from direct human pressures or climate alterations (also called ‘prevailing conditions’). We therefore need to understand changes in plankton communities so that the associated human activities, such as nutrient inputs or fishing, for example, can be managed.
Like all European countries, the UK must ensure that our marine
habitats and species are in ‘Good Environmental Status’ under the EU
Marine Strategy Framework Directive. As the key component of the pelagic
habitat, plankton can provide insight into the
state of pelagic ecosystems. We are fortunate that in the UK we have an
extensive plankton monitoring programme (Fig. 1) which collects plankton
samples throughout our waters, and which can enable to us to assess the status
of our pelagic habitats. The UK plankton monitoring programme, however, is made
up of a diverse suite of sampling surveys that collect and analyse plankton in
different ways. Because of this variability, we developed an indicator that
enables us to use all of these datasets together to examine change in UK
The ‘lifeform indicator’ is based on plankton functional
groups, or ‘lifeforms’. Plankton lifeforms are groups of plankton which perform
a similar ecosystem role or respond similarly to ecosystem change (Fig 2). When
lifeforms are examined in ecologically-relevant pairs, they can provide
information about the functioning of the pelagic habitat. The advantage of
using plankton lifeforms for the indicator rather than individual plankton
species, is that plankton lifeforms are grouped based on biological traits (diet,
habitat, etc), so species-level data is not required. This means that data from
plankton monitoring surveys that analyse some taxa to the family- or group-level
rather than the species-level can still be used to populate the indicator. From
a policy perspective, it’s important to use as much data as possible so that
the evidence base used to make decisions about managing human activities is as
strong as it can be.
This work is the first time that the pelagic plankton community
has been assessed on a UK-wide scale using a common indicator throughout UK
waters. Our results suggest the UK’s plankton community is changing, but
changes are not uniform throughout UK waters, with different regions and
lifeform pairs changing to different extents (Fig. 2). Further work is needed
to interpret the observed changes and link them to possible management measures.
Some of this work will take place under our new ICEGRAPH
The lifeform indicator is also an OSPAR common indicator (PH1/FW5: Changes in Phytoplankton and Zooplankton Communities) which was used for the regional OSAPR 2017 Intermediate Assessment. Here we included further UK datasets in the analysis to develop a more complete picture of the status of UK pelagic habitats. As we refine and interpret the lifeforms indicator, adding additional datasets and expanding the number of years examined, our understanding of change in UK plankton communities will increase, allowing us to better understand links between plankton and other parts of the foodweb and enabling policy makers to better manage human pressures on the pelagic habitat.
Abigail, Plankton and Policy
McQuatters-Gollop, A., Atkinson, A., Aubert, A., Bedford, J., Best, M., Bresnan, E., Cook,
K., Devlin, M., Gowen, R., Johns, D.G., Machairopoulou, M., Mellor, A., Ostle,
C., Scherer, C. and Tett, P., (2019). Plankton lifeforms as a biodiversity
indicator for regional-scale assessment of pelagic habitats for policy. Ecological
Indicators, 101: 913-925.
ICEGRAPH: Increasing Confidence in Evaluating GES for Regional Assessments of Pelagic Habitats is a £190,000 project funded by EMFF/MMO to fill some of the scientific gaps around assessing state and understanding change in pelagic habitats. I’m the PI on this project and our partners include Environment Agency, the Marine Biological Association (MBA), Plymouth Marine Lab (PML), and Centre for Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). Jake Bedford, also of Plankton and Policy, will be the project postdoc.
Plankton are at the foundation of pelagic food webs, supporting a range of key ecosystem functions including carbon sequestration and energy flow to higher trophic levels such as fish. The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) takes an Ecosystem Approach to managing Europe’s seas with the overarching objective of achieving ‘Good Environmental Status’. In 2017, biodiversity components, including pelagic habitats (plankton), were assessed for progress towards GES for the first time. This assessment, known as the Intermediate Assessment (IA2017), was the first ever regional assessment of Northeast Atlantic biodiversity, and will be reported to the European Commission through the EU Member States, including the UK, by 2020. Although IA 2017 detected change in plankton indicators, research gaps leading to a weak evidence base, prevented interpretation of the ecological meaning behind observed indicator changes, and we were unable to determine if pelagic habitats are in GES. The UK has a strong plankton monitoring programme, but the data have yet to be analysed holistically, facilitating further development of the UK/OSPAR Change in Plankton Communities indicator and interpretation of indicator change.
ICEGRAPH will address this gap by increasing the scientific understanding of the drivers of change in pelagic biodiversity, expanding our ability to manage human pressures, such as fishing and nutrients, which have negative impacts on the marine environment.
ICEGRAPH is a direct response to knowledge gaps recongised by UK and OSPAR policy makers for successful implementation of the MSFD. The ICEGRAPH team will therefore work closely with UK and OSPAR policy makers to ensure project results align with policy needs. Project results will directly support UK and wider EU decision-making about managing marine biodiversity.
In marine ecology, it is widely accepted that monitoring data spanning long time-scales are essential for understanding ecosystem change, especially for the detection of community shifts linked to climate variability. Data spanning multiple decades are also essential for biodiversity policy, as they allow us to detect if current ecosystem state represents a change due to anthropogenic pressures and climate change. The Continuous Plankton Recorder dataset, for example, provides consistent plankton community data in the North Sea since 1958, and these data are used in a variety of policy assessments.
One method identified for further increasing temporal scale in ecological studies is the ‘rescue’ and reuse of historical data sources that otherwise may be deemed redundant. For example, the digitisation of historical fisheries log books can help in understanding past fish stocks beyond the time-scope of routine contemporary fisheries monitoring. This approach aids in avoiding ‘shifting baselines syndrome’- the phenomenon where the magnitude of change is underestimated when using just contemporary data, leading to lower ambition in target setting and management measures. In our new paper, we used a ‘rescued’ digitised dataset of plankton samples taken by ICES between 1902 and 1912, to understand whether the beginning of the CPR survey time-period represents a community that was already on a trajectory of change.
Integrating disparate plankton datasets, especially historical datasets, is, however, extremely challenging. As an example, the scientific names of plankton taxa can change over time, as a result of developing taxonomic knowledge. This means that the same organism may be included in different surveys but under a different name. Luckily, the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) documents these changes, and we used this database to update all taxon names to their most contemporary equivalent. Another example is that different surveys use different methods to collect their data, and information on how data is collected (‘metadata’) is often absent or limited from rescued historical datasets. Whereas the CPR uses a continuous sampling method along a transect, the ICES dataset comes from station-based plankton net samples. This means that differences in the species lists between two datasets may be a result of sampling biases. We therefore compiled a list of taxa that were common in both datasets and that are likely to be sampled well by the different methodologies.
By then exploring the relative occurrence frequencies of this representative taxa list, we could look for indicative community changes from a baseline set at the beginning of the 20th century. We found a significant difference in community composition between this baseline and the start of the CPR time-period in the 1960s, and this change was bigger in zooplankton communities than in phytoplankton communities. Furthermore, this change was driven by select taxa, with many of the taxa showing relative stability through time. These changes coincided with an increasing SST in the North Sea, implicating climate as a potential driver of this change. Similar corroborative evidence for the role of temperature driving plankton community change was found when comparing taxa over the whole extended time period (1902-1912 + 1960-2015). For example, the copepod Centropages typicus and the multi-species group ‘Bivalve larvae’ were found to show significant variation in response to SST over the wider dataset, extending the time-scale of changes previously detected using just the CPR data.
Left: Occurrence frequency of C. typicus by month from wider time period. Right: Occurrence frequency of Bivalvia by months from wider time period.
These results illustrate that a ‘stable’ period in time may be arbitrary to define for North Sea plankton communities, as even the start of CPR survey may represent a changing plankton community. This means that historical time periods may not be a useful method for defining state-based targets for marine biodiversity policy. This is especially true for the use of ‘rescued’ historical datasets, where sampling and analysis biases are unlikely to be able to be fully resolved. Instead, historical plankton datasets are most useful in providing contextual information on large scale ecosystem drivers, such as climate change, to marine biodiversity assessments.
Jake, Plankton and Policy
Bedford, J., Johns, D.G. and McQuatters-Gollop, A., (2018). A century of change in North Sea plankton communities explored through integrating historical datasets. ICES Journal of Marine Science. https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsy148
During the week of October 28, 2018, hundreds of top marine scientists are meeting at the annual PICES conference in Yokohama to discuss the latest research on Pacific marine ecosystems and the implications for their sustainable management. As many of you know, I spend a lot of time in Japan and have written about marine issues, such as bluefin tuna and science-policy, on the blog before. Actually, the more I work in Japan, the more Japan holds a special place in my heart due to its beauty, culture, friendliness, and amazing food. 日本が大好きです (I love Japan!). This week, the PICES conference provides me with a chance to reflect on some of the challenges facing sustainable marine biodiversity management both in Japan and further afield.
We depend on our marine environment for many human activities from fishing to transport to recreation; however, we are not managing our seas sustainably. Human impacts on the ocean are increasing globally, with many commercial fish stocks overfished, plastic found throughout the world’s seas, and the recent loss of approximately 1/3 of tropical coral reefs due to ocean warming. These human impacts are most severe in highly populated shelf seas such as those around Japan and Europe, where the marine ecosystem is used particularly intensively. In order to ensure marine ecosystems are available for future generations to use and enjoy, we must find a way to sustainably manage human use of the marine environment.
Our oceans and seas are managed through policy decisions at multiple political scales – from local decisions, such as which sections of coastline to develop; to national directives about fishing regulations; to regional and international conservation agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. These decisions seek to regulate human activities at different spatial scales in order to achieve management goals or targets that support a desired vision for marine ecosystems. Ideally, policy decisions should be based on robust scientific evidence, with scientific knowledge carefully considered before enacting a policy. In reality, however, this is not always the case. For example, during the past decade, the scientific community has authored thousands of papers about the increasing depletion of global fish stocks, yet more than half of commercial fisheries are still not sustainably managed. The science to support fishing sustainability clearly exists, but most fish stocks continue to be overfished. Somewhere between carrying out the science and making policy decisions, the message that we need to change the way that we fish is getting lost. Unfortunately, overfishing is just one example of the disruption between good science and good decisions. Many other cases exist, from poorly managed development damaging coastal habitats to underwater noise from shipping causing behavioural changes in deep diving whales. The exchange of information between scientists and policymakers clearly must be improved.
Japan’s marine habitats, shown here at Shikine-Jima, are high in biodiversity and must be carefully managed. Institutes such as University of Tsukuba’s Shimoda Marine Research Centre work to collect data and conduct research that can be used to support policy decisions. Photo: Prof Ben Harvey, Shimoda Marine Research Centre
The two-way flow of scientific research, policy needs, and ideas between scientists and policy-makers is critical to the use of evidence in decision making. The scientific and policy communities should work together to integrate scientific research into the decision-making process. Such collaboration, however, can be challenging for several reason. Firstly, the communication formats respected in the scientific community, such as peer-reviewed publications and scientific conference talks, are not appropriate to disseminate research to policy and decision makers. Policy makers and scientists communicate in their own jargon-centric languages, which leads to miscommunications and a lack of understanding between the two groups. Consequently, scientific research may not be integrated in to the decision making process, with policymakers left either unaware of or not clearly understanding how science can support and inform management. In general, policy-makers are not marine scientists, and therefore require scientists to communicate targeted scientific information about the marine environment clearly to them. Additionally, marine ecosystems, such as the coral reefs and kelp forests found in Japanese waters, are more difficult to access than terrestrial environments, often requiring SCUBA or snorkelling gear. For policy-makers, this lack of access presents challenges in relating human pressure to change in marine ecosystems and envisioning what healthy marine ecosystems look like.
Often, scientists have only a vague understanding of the policy landscape and may therefore not recognise connections between their research and policy needs. One reason for this is that limited funding is available for scientists to input into the policy process so scientists might not think it is worth their time investing in understanding policy needs, or they may feel policymakers are not interested in their scientific work. A further complication is that policymakers work to tight timescales making it difficult for scientists to respond to queries or calls for evidence. Finally, the route through which scientists can engage with decision makers may be unclear, with policymakers unsure of which scientific experts to contact on issues and scientists confused about which policymakers may need to know about their scientific research.
The above challenges can begin to be addressed through increasing open communication and trust between scientists and policymakers. For example, both scientists and policymakers can hold focus groups and workshops to bring the two sides together. Such meetings often take place as part of projects or alongside conferences, and provide an opportunity for scientists and policymakers to get to know each other and develop working relationships. By talking to policy makers, scientists can tailor their research to meet direct policy needs. Equally, by talking to scientists, policy makers can better understand the evidence that is provided to them, and gain an appreciation of future management challenges from a scientific perspective.
To further improve communication to policymakers, scientists can disseminate their work by writing policy-targeted briefings and factsheets which explicitly link scientific research to policy needs. Such publications are most effective if they are short, focused, and written in clear language, free of jargon. For example, the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) produces POSTnotes, which are brief, accessible syntheses of scientific research placed in a policy context. These POSTnotes are used by UK Parliamentarians and civil servants to better understand the current science and how it relates to upcoming political decisions. Social media, such as Twitter and blogging, is also an efficient way to engage non-scientists in scientific research; creating public support for an issue can raise its profile, increasing visibility to policymakers. Lastly, scientists can get involved in science-policy working groups such as the North Pacific Marine Science Organisation (PICES) which produces advice for policymakers and managers.
A recent POSTnote about UK sustainable fisheries management, to which I contributed.
Though working across the science-policy interface has its challenges, clear benefits exist for both scientists and policymakers. The use of scientific evidence in policymaking increases the likelihood that management decisions will achieve sustainability while linking science to policymaking raises the profile of scientific research and can provide a route through which to pursue funding. This close science-policy collaboration is needed to ensure policy decisions about managing human activities in the marine environment are based on robust scientific knowledge.
Abigail, Plankton and Policy
With 富士山, Mt Fuji, October 2016
Read more: McQuatters-Gollop, A., (2018). 海洋生態系の持続可能な管理に向けた科学と政策の協働 (Collaboration of science and policy toward sustainable management of marine ecosystems). Sasakawa Peace Foundation Ocean Policy Research Institute Ocean Newsletter, 434: 4-5.