OSPAR Intermediate Assessment 2017 – Launched!

After seven long years of work, today marks the day that OSPAR’s Intermediate Assessment 2017 is launched!

IA2017, covering both status and trends across the North-East Atlantic, presents a picture of this important marine area and includes consideration of eutrophication, hazardous substances, radioactive substances, offshore oil and gas industries, a range of other human pressures, ocean acidification, the impact of a changing ocean climate, and for the first time, biological diversity.

IA2017 is an internationally important science-policy project, which will help fulfil the UK’s, and other contracting parties’, obligation to the EU for the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

The biodiversity portion of IA2017 has been led by ICG-COBAM (OSPAR’s Group on Coordination of Biodiversity and Monitoring). My role in COBAM is the chair of the Pelagic Habitats Expert Group, which is comprised of plankton experts from each OSPAR contracting party.

We have developed and assessed three pelagic habitats indicators for IA2017:

PH1 – Changes in phytoplankton and zooplankton communities

PH2 – Changes in phytoplankton biomass and zooplankton abundance

PH3 – Pilot assessment of changes in plankton diversity

In the coming weeks I’ll discuss each of these in depth, but for now I want to speak a bit about the process.

IA2017 represents a true collaboration between scientists and policy makers. The scale of IA2017 is impressive – policy makers and scientists from 15 different countries and the EU worked together to assess the state of the North East Atlantic. The Pelagic Habitats Expert Group alone used dozens of plankton time-series to develop our indicators and construct our assessments and have achieved a product which is both scientifically robust and useful for policy.

Cooperation ensures progress

Cooperation ensures progress. Figure from OSPAR.


OSPAR’s 2010 Quality Status Report (QSR) was the current state of the art of ecosystem assessment in the North East Atlantic with 10 indicator assessments. IA2017 surpasses this, with 47 indicator assessments, including for the first time biodiversity indicators, a clear indication that our knowledge of marine ecosystems is improving. We have an additional 18 ‘candidate’ indicators still in their development phase and so are expecting the next OSPAR QSR to be even more comprehensive, with at least 65 indicator assessments.

New developments in the way biodiversity is assessed. Figure from OSPAR.

A significant piece of progress with IA2017 is the inclusion of indicators for biodiversity, in line with the MSFD. While indicators for eutrophication and pollution have been in development for decades, the idea of assessing biodiversity is relatively new, with the MSFD the first piece of EU legislation to require such thinking. Through COBAM, the Pelagic Habitats Expert Group have made huge advances in mobilising European plankton expertise, collating plankton biodiversity datasets, developing a suite of biodiversity indicators for key aspects of the plankton community, and framing our results in an OSPAR regional context. As the expert group chair, this process has been challenging, as all innovative work is. That, however, is a story for a future post. Today, I want to celebrate the advances we’ve made in understanding plankton diversity and using robust science to inform European marine policy and sustainably manage our seas.


Abigail, Plankton and Policy

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Why do policy makers need plankton taxonomy?

It might not seem intuitive, but plankton taxonomy is critically important to informing marine policy and conservation. At its most basic level, biodiversity is an inventory of the organisms present in an ecosystem. The recognition and identification of these organisms depends on highly specialised taxonomic skills – many organisms look incredibly similar and can’t be separated just using a field guide. The newest generation of policy mechanisms rightly consider biodiversity in their legislation, and those who help deliver policy – managers, applied scientists (like me!), civil servants – need to consider biodiversity during policy implementation. Plankton biodiversity indicators, based on taxonomic information, are therefore needed to understand and assess subtle changes in marine food webs and dynamics, and provide robust evidence to inform marine conservation and policy. Plankton taxonomic data is consequently increasingly important due to the growing focus on ecosystem-based management of marine environments, a management paradigm intent on conserving biodiversity, key species, and habitats.

The role of biodiversity in conservation and policy is still evolving. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was introduced in 1992, giving a political impetus to marine taxonomy on a global scale. The CBD defines ‘biodiversity’ as:

‘‘the variability among living organisms, from all sources, including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems’’.

This CBD’s definition of biodiversity specifically recognises the species-level component which can only be understood through taxonomy.

More recently, the European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) requires the maintenance of biodiversity to be assessed through by monitoring ecological indicators. The OSPAR Pelagic Habitats Expert Group, which I chair, have developed a suite of complimentary plankton indicators which provide insight into different aspects of the plankton community (Figure 1). These indicators range from bulk indicators of phytoplankton biomass and total copepod abundance, to a plankton lifeform indicator based on functional groups, to an indictor based on biodiversity indices. When used together, these indicators will give insight into plankton biodiversity through examining aspects of plankton productivity (coarse biomass and abundance indicators), function (functional group indicators), and community structure (community composition indicators). Each indicator depends on accurate taxonomic information about the abundance and functional roles of all plankton taxa present.

Plankton indicator types require different levels of taxonomically-resolved data.

Worryingly, despite its relevance to ecosystem-based management, taxonomy is a discipline in crisis. Taxonomy is highly specialised, with a long-term training process. Few positions allowing taxonomists to develop their unique skills exist because retiring taxonomists are not being replaced. Additionally, funding for taxonomy has been drastically reduced jeopardising important monitoring datasets. Unfairly, taxonomy is often considered ‘unsexy’ or basic ‘stamp collecting’, rather than innovative science. Taxonomy is actually a wide field, not only restrained to the discovery and description of new species, but also including the identification, analysis, classification and reclassification, and naming of organisms, all of which rely on specialist knowledge. This decline in taxonomic expertise is particularly concerning because the requirement for taxonomic information is increasing due to rising impetus placed on biodiversity conservation and ecosystem-based management.

So how can we help make sure that plankton taxonomic data and expertise are available for policy and conservation? Well, dedicated funding to maintain plankton taxonomic datasets and develop related skills is crucial. A mandate from research councils to include access costs for taxonomic datasets in research proposals, in line with the inclusion of computer, ship, and lab resources, would provide funding stability. The active promotion of scientific value of plankton taxonomic data and research, perhaps through journal-led mandatory citing of datasets, or the publication of taxonomic data, would raise the profile of taxonomy and associated skills by giving data equal merit and recognition to that of journal articles. Finally, and this is my pet area of interest, the better incorporation of plankton taxonomic research into management and conservation would provide a more robust scientific underpinning of decisions making while also illustrating the value of public funding of plankton taxonomic datasets.

From microscope to management, plankton taxonomy is critically valuable to biodiversity conservation and marine policy.

What are your ideas for addressing the vulnerable state of plankton taxonomic data?

Read more: McQuatters-Gollop, A., Johns, David G., Bresnan, E., Skinner, J., Rombouts, I., Stern, R.F., Aubert, A., Johansen, M., and Knights, A., (2017). From microscope to management: the critical value of plankton taxonomy to marine policy and biodiversity conservation. Marine Policy, 83: 1-10. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X16307874


Abigail, Plankton and Policy

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Implementing the MSFD in Europe – an OSPAR COBAM workshop

In May I attended the OSPAR Intersessional Correspondence Group for Coordinated Biodiversity and Monitoring (COBAM) workshop in Marseille, France. OSPAR COBAM is responsible for leading development and operationalisation of indicators for marine pelagic biodiversity in Europe. The workshop focused on delivery of the OSPAR Intermediate Assessment of environmental status in European Seas which will be submitted to the European Commission this year as part of the implementation of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Attendees included top European scientists and key policy makers who play critical roles in evaluating and communicating the environmental status of European species and habitats. I chair the Pelagic Expert Group, which comprises specialists in applied pelagic ecology in all OSPAR contracting parties and works closely with policy makers to deliver the science needed to support sustainable management of the Europe’s pelagic habitats. This partnership between scientists and policy makers is key to the effective management of the European marine environment. The OSPAR COBAM team has worked closely together for years, and we enjoy catching up at our workshops and hatching plans for projects to improve management and monitoring of the EU’s marine ecosystem, particularly over a glass of wine in the sun.

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

Photo by Jane Hawkridge

The OSPAR COBAM team. Photo by Jane Hawkridge.

2017-05-23 19.29.38

Strategizing about funding opportunities during the evening session. Who says you need a meeting room to be productive?

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A funded plankton PhD opportunity at Plymouth!

Update: Applications are now open for the PhD studentship! Apply here!

A competitive, funded PhDship with me has just been advertised at Plymouth University. Applications close on 5 May and the student will start this autumn. Please forward this on to any bright students who might be interested.

Apply for the PhD

Project title: Connectivity between pelagic and benthic habitats as an indicator of Good Environmental Status

Supervisory team: Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop (PU, Director of Studies), Dr Louise Firth (Plymouth University), Dr Nova Mieszkowska (MBA), and Mr David Johns (SAHFOS).

Project outline: Plankton and intertidal organisms are both sensitive to climate change and can be used as indicators to show shifts in community dynamics. Although indicators have been developed for benthic and pelagic ecosystem components, integration between parts of the ecosystem is lacking and an indicator of connectivity between the two habitats is needed. The distribution and abundance of meroplankton therefore can be used as an important predictor of emergent benthic populations and communities. Multi-decadal datasets, are key to developing sensitive indicators of benthic-pelagic connectivity for the assessment of Good Environmental Status. In the Western English Channel, multi-decadal time-series exist for both meroplankton (the SAHFOS Continuous Plankton Recorder) and intertidal organisms (the Marine Biological Association’s MarClim dataset). These datasets, however, have never been used in tandem and their combined potential in enabling the development of functional ecosystem indicators is therefore unexploited.

The successful student will be based at Plymouth University’s School of Biological and Marine Sciences , a centre of expertise in marine ecology and marine policy. He or she will analyse the multi-decadal CPR and MarClim datasets in a novel manner to investigate benthic-pelagic relationships in the Western Channel. Plankton and intertidal samples from Plymouth Sound will be analysed to highlight local variation in the meroplankton and intertidal communities, and links between the Sound and the Western Channel region made to test hypotheses related to regional connectivity. Indicators of benthic-pelagic connectivity will be developed, and the student will perform the first ever assessment of Good Environmental Status of benthic-pelagic connectivity in the western Channel ecosystem, in alignment with the policy needs.


(c) Plankton Chronicles

Further project details and application information:

Background to the study: The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) applies a holistic approach to achieving Good Environmental Status (GES) in European Seas. The MSFD requires the development and monitoring of ecosystem indicators towards environmental targets. Plankton and intertidal organisms are both sensitive to climate change and can be used as indicators to show shifts in community dynamics (Firth et al 2009). Meroplankton, as a plankton functional group, are now an operational pelagic MSFD indicator for the UK and OSPAR (the regional seas convention of NE Europe) (McQuatters-Gollop et al. 2015), and intertidal organisms (e.g. the barnacles Semibalanus balanoides and Chthamalus montagui, the gastropods Littorina littorea and Gibbula umbilicalis) a MSFD benthic indicator (Burrows et al. 2014). Although indicators have been developed for benthic and pelagic ecosystem components, integration between parts of the ecosystem is lacking and an indicator of connectivity between the two habitats is needed. The distribution and abundance of meroplankton therefore can be used as an important predictor of emergent benthic populations and communities.

Issues to be investigated: Although separate plankton and intertidal indicators are used in the MSFD, an indicator of connectivity between the benthic and pelagic systems is needed in order to implement the holistic and functional approach to ecosystem-based management required by the Directive. Rapid environmental and climatic changes, however, are increasingly evident in marine ecosystems and these must be accounted for when developing ecosystem indicators. Time-series data have revealed long-term climate-driven changes in Western Channel benthic-pelagic connectivity (Mieszkowska et al. 2014). Multi-decadal datasets, therefore, are key to developing sensitive indicators of benthic-pelagic connectivity for the assessment of Good Environmental Status (McQuatters-Gollop 2012). In the Western English Channel, multi-decadal time-series exist for both meroplankton (the SAHFOS Continuous Plankton Recorder) and intertidal organisms (the MBA’s MarClim dataset). These datasets, however, have never been used in tandem and their combined potential in enabling the development of functional ecosystem indicators is therefore unexploited.

Aims and objectives: This project aims to develop and assess indicators of benthic-pelagic connectivity in the Western Channel in direct response to current policy needs. The student will analyse the multi-decadal CPR and MarClim datasets in a novel manner to investigate benthic-pelagic relationships in the Western Channel. Plankton and intertidal samples from Plymouth Sound will be analysed to highlight local variation in the meroplankton and intertidal communities, and links between the Sound and the Western Channel region made to test hypotheses related to regional connectivity. These analyses will support the development of benthic-pelagic connectivity indicators, which will then be assessed for Good Environmental Status, in accordance with policy needs.

Methodology: This project will explore relationships between meroplankton from the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR- https://www.sahfos.ac.uk/data/our-data/ ) survey and intertidal data from MarClim (http://www.mba.ac.uk/marclim/) to identify links between benthic and pelagic habitats in the Western Channel. These 60-year times-series will be supplemented with plankton and intertidal samples from Plymouth Sound, collected and analysed by the student. The high resolution Plymouth Sound samples will provide information about variability and succession in the local plankton and intertidal communities, and highlight synergies between meroplankton and intertidal dynamics in the Sound and the wider Western Channel ecosystem. All datasets will be analysed with a combination of statistical models (GAMs, GLMs, etc), time-series analysis, and spatial techniques. The supervisory team possess the skills necessary to guide the student through application of these methods to project data. Alignment with UK and OSPAR policy objectives will occur throughout the studentship through direct interaction with UK and OSPAR science-policy expert groups.

Outcome: This project will develop and test novel indicators of benthic-pelagic connectivity for use in the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, as a direct response to policy needs. The indicators will be both scientifically robust and policy-relevant and therefore of interest to the ecological and conservation communities. The student will perform the first ever assessment of Good Environmental Status of benthic-pelagic connectivity in the western Channel ecosystem, in alignment with the MSFD. Indicators and assessment results will integrate directly into the UK and OSPAR-level MSFD processes. Project results will be highly publishable, with >3 scientific papers expected.

Relevance/significance in a wider context: The indicators developed during the studentship are legally mandated through the MSFD as vital for supporting intertidal and pelagic ecosystem-based management. The project results will thus directly inform UK and OSPAR-level assessments of Good Environmental Status, a clear example of policy impact generation. Project outcomes will be directly integrated into the MSFD policy process through Dr McQuatters-Gollop who chairs the implementation of the MSFD of the UK and OSPAR for pelagic habitats and Dr Mieszkowska who is a member of the MSFD benthic habitats expert group. The student will also receive the opportunity to interact with and shadow the UK and OSPAR pelagic MSFD expert groups, facilitating understanding of the UK and international policy processes.

Student training and opportunity: The student will develop skills in spatial and temporal analysis; analysis of large datasets; statistical techniques; plankton and intertidal taxonomy, sampling and analysis methods; and application of science to policy. Through partnership with PU, SAHFOS and the MBA, the student will undergo training in basic plankton and intertidal taxonomy and will develop an in depth understanding of biological survey techniques and analysis methodologies. The candidate will gain interdisciplinary expertise in plankton and intertidal ecology aspects of science-policy, which will allow him/her to contribute to international research on ecology and conservation. This studentship will reinforce collaboration between PU, the MBA, and SAHFOS, creating a wide scientific network for the student, and inspiring new collaboration with colleagues in the international science and policy communities.

Details of PU research centre affiliation, working environment etc. The studentship will be based in Plymouth University’s Centre for Marine and Conservation Policy Research (MarCoPol), which is part of the Marine Institute, and carried out in close collaboration with the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS) and the Marine Biological Association of the UK (MBA). The Marine Institute is the UK’s largest, including over 3000 staff, researchers, and students. In 2015 the Marine Institute’s £4 million Marine Station was opened with state-of-the-art diving, teaching and research facilities. MarCoPol is truly interdisciplinary, bringing together academics from the fields of conservation, policy, sociology, economics, law, business, biology and ecology. The Centre’s team of researchers works on delivering cutting edge scientific evidence into the UK, European and international policy, conservation and decision making processes by working closely with Defra, OSPAR, the International Council on Exploration of the Seas (ICES and others. SAHFOS is an international research and monitoring charity which hosts the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey, the longest and most spatially extensive marine ecological dataset in the world. SAHFOS is an internationally-renowned centre for plankton taxonomy and research, and also plays a key role in supporting UK, European and international policy.

Essential requirements: A 1st class or 2:1 in Marine Biology, Oceanography, Conservation Ecology, Marine Policy or related disciplines; an interest in taxonomy and conservation. Desirable requirements:  MSc or MRes in Marine Biology, Oceanography, Conservation Ecology, Marine Policy or related disciplines; experience in basic taxonomy and working with large datasets, R, and GIS.

Who to contact for further information (DoS): Please contact Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop abiqua@plymouth.ac.uk for further information or an informal chat.

General information about applying for a research degree at Plymouth University is available at: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/student-life/your-studies/the-graduate-school/applicants-and-enquirers

You can apply via the online application form which can be found at: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/study/postgraduate and click ‘Apply’.

2015-10-15 10.54.36

References: Burrows MT, et al. (2014). Geographical limits to species-range shifts are suggested by climate velocity. Nature. 507:492-5. • Firth LB, et al. (2009). Predicting impacts of climate-induced range expansion: an experimental framework and a test involving key grazers on temperate rocky shores. Global Change Biol. 15:1413-1422 • McQuatters-Gollop, A, Johns, DG, et al., (2015). The Continuous Plankton Recorder survey: how can long-term phytoplankton datasets deliver Good Environmental Status? Estuar., Coast. Shelf Sci. 162:88-97. • McQuatters-Gollop, A (2012). Challenges for implementing the Marine Strategy Framework Directive in a climate of macroecological change. Phil. Trans. R. Soc., 370: 5636-5655. • Mieszkowska N, Firth LB, et al. (2014). The role of sustained observations in tracking impacts of environmental change on marine biodiversity and ecosystems. Phil. Trans. R. Soc., 372.

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Reflections on the science-policy interface

As a first year PhD student in Plymouth University’s Plankton and Policy research group, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop run by OSPAR, about the integration of different biodiversity indicators into holistic ecosystem assessments. The workshop was part of the EU-funded EcApRHA project which focuses on addressing gaps in biodiversity indicator development for the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). Ecosystem assessments are the core scientific contributions to ecosystem-based management frameworks such as the EU MSFD, where the ‘health’ of marine ecosystem components are assessed and linked to either natural or anthropogenic drivers. It is therefore a process that lies at the science-policy interface, where the science is policy-led, and policy can be scientifically based. The EcApRHA workshop brought together biodiversity scientists and policy practitioners with round table discussions, and raised pressing questions on the role of science in the policy process and the interaction between scientists and policy makers. Below are some of these points that I found particularly poignant, and my reflections on them.

How much core understanding is enough understanding? ecaprhalogo

The workshop raised the point that often the fundamental way that a scientist likes to tackle a problem differs to the time scale of policy cycles. A scientist may wish to develop an in-depth understanding of a system before giving any advice. The Ecosystem Approach to management provides a perfect example of this. How far are we really from a complete understanding of every ecosystem component and every ecosystem process? The reality is a complete understanding is probably a futile goal. Although this quest for understanding is the foundation of ecology, and of wider science in general, is it realistic when decisions on ecosystem management are not made on this ‘timescale of discovery’, but on the timescale of policy cycles? That’s not to say, however, that core science is not vital for effective ecosystem management, or that future scientific developments in marine ecosystem ecology won’t be able to improve marine management measures, but conservation scientists need to be pragmatic in identifying the core scientific challenges that are hindering policy implementation.


Scientists and policy makers discussing the role of scientific evidence in decision making. Photo courtesy of Emily Corcoran, OSPAR.

How much evidence is enough evidence?

One of the main roles of science in policy-making is the provision of evidence to underpin management decisions. A decline in a species or habitat leading to the designation of protected status and evidence of detrimental effects of trawling on a particular area leading to the establishment of an MPA are basic (if over-simplified) examples. However, an interesting point was raised at the workshop that evidence levels vary depending on the social consequences of the management action. For example, the body of evidence needed to close a fishery is large, and requires clear evidence of effects of fishing, in the context of other ecosystem drivers, with high confidence in the evidence. Other management interventions, such as clearing beach litter, that allow for a more precautionary approach, and have less societal impact, may be triggered by more anecdotal scientific evidence. Again, conservation scientists need to envisage the end management goal when designing studies, to ensure the evidence they are providing is relevant to policy interventions.

Can scientists really define what research is ‘policy-relevant’ by themselves? 

EcApRHA is truly a European collaboration.

EcApRHA is truly a European collaboration.

With a heavy emphasis on societal impact now underpinning many funding decisions for scientific research, it often comes to scientists to justify their work in the context of policy. However, what the workshop highlighted was that it is only when there is clear communication between scientists and policy makers can ‘policy relevance’ really be defined. By talking to policy makers, conservation scientists can tailor their research to meet direct policy needs. A key message from discussions was to always link research to how it contributes to management; does it provide evidence to trigger management? Does it provide supporting evidence on changing sensitivities of ecosystems to pressures? Does it help prioritise different anthropogenic drivers? 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. This will be especially important when it comes to tackling the overarching problem of how to manage human activities in in marine environments under climate change.

Overall, although the science-policy interface is a formidable landscape to navigate,

Jake and Abigail contemplating the role of plankton in EU policy. Photo courtesy of Mark Dickey-Collas, ICES.

Jake and Abigail contemplating the role of plankton in EU policy. Photo courtesy of Mark Dickey-Collas, ICES.

especially as a PhD student, the workshop was a fantastic experience. I left feeling even more inspired by marine biodiversity, but with a healthy dose of appreciation of the ‘real-world’ challenges to conserving it.

Jake Bedford, Plankton and Policy

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SAHFOS-NOC PhD opp: Climate change and changes in zooplankton biomass in the North Atlantic

Climate change and changes in zooplankton biomass in the North Atlantic

Lead Supervisor – Claudia Castellani (SAHFOS), Dr Cathy Lucas (Ocean & Earth Science, Uos) and Martin Edwards (SAHFOS)

rs1392_zoea_eddie rs954_megalopelarve-sand_cropped


Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, Plymouth, United Kingdom

Recent studies have indicated that global warming will result in a spatial reorganisation of marine communities favoring an increase in smaller species (1, 2, 3). Such changes are predicted to impact both marine food-webs and biogeochemical cycling through decreases in total biomass, in the size fraction available to higher trophic levels (i.e. fish, birds and mammals) and in downward carbon export due to increased microbial remineralisation at the ocean surface. Zooplankton body size is a key parameter for the estimation of biomass, productivity and energy flux within marine ecological systems. However, zooplankton size and body composition can vary greatly both seasonally and spatially as a result of differences in environmental conditions under which the organism grow and develop.  Yet, accurate estimates of zooplankton body size and biomass particularly over wide spatial and temporal scales are rare. Consequently, ecological and modelling studies calculate zooplankton biomass and productivity using mean body sizes reported in the literature or determined from published allometric equations (1). This approach is likely to result in gross estimate errors, which at the present remain unquantified. The aim of this study is to quantify spatial and temporal changes in zooplankton size and biomass in the North Atlantic using a fast imaged-based automatic device (4).


Zooplankton body size has been classically determined through labor intensive microscopic measurements of the organism. From this, biovolume can then be estimated by approximating specimens to geometrical shapes and biomass by determining the weight or elemental composition (i.e. usually C and N). Microscopic measurements are time consuming and hence such determinations are rare in the literature. Recent development of automated optical systems, such as FlowCAM has enabled faster routine measurement of zooplankton size and their identification (4). The student will determine the basin scale variability in zooplankton taxa size and biomass by automatic analysis with Macro-flowCAM of preserved zooplankton samples collected by the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) in the North Atlantic between 1960 and 2016. Zooplankton biomass will be determined through the analysis of CPR material using a C/N analyser. Both size and biomass measurements of zooplankton from CPR samples will be calibrated against non-preserved zooplankton samples collected at the same time of the year and in the same area using both fixed sampling stations in the English Channel (i.e. L4 and E1) and field work opportunities planned in the North Atlantic between 2017-2019 (NERC Arctic Food-webs program; AtlantOS https://www.atlantos-h2020.eu/).


The SPITFIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS). SAHFOS operates the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey which is recognised as the longest and geographically most extensive marine biological survey in the world. The dataset comprises of ~1000 taxa recorded over multi-decadal periods. Training will include plankton ecology, global climate change and statistical techniques in spatial and temporal data analysis.

Specific training will include: 1) taxonomic identification of North Atlantic zooplankton taxa, 2) operation of the image-based analyser, Macro-FlowCam for automatic determination of the size and identification of the taxa of zooplankton, 3) determination of carbon and nitrogen content of zooplankton using C/N analyser.

We anticipate that the student will also partake in planned research cruises in recently funded projects (NERC Arctic, EU-project AtlantOS). Opportunities also exists with colleagues at NOC or other institutes (IMR, Norway; HAFRO, Iceland; DFO, Canada) to partake in additional cruises in the Arctic and in temperate North Atlantic areas.

Eligibility & Funding Details: 

This SPITFIRE project is open to applicants who meet the SPITFIRE eligibility, alongside other exceptional applicants and will come with a fully funded studentship for UK students and EU students who meet the RCUK eligibility criteria.  To check your eligibility and find information on how to apply click here.

UK applicants and EU students who meet the RCUK eligibility criteria please apply to SPITFIRE . This project is also open to applicants who DO NOT meet the SPITFIRE funding eligibility criteria via GSNOCS by applying to GSNOCS . Please make sure you apply to the correct programme and applications from non SPITFIRE eligible applicants will be rejected automatically.

Apply  here http://noc.ac.uk/gsnocs/how-apply

Background Reading: 

  1. Beaugrand G., Edwards M. and Louis Legendre (2009) Marine biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and carbon cycles. PNAS, 107: 10120–10124
  2. Daufresne M., Lengfellner K and Sommer U. (2009) Global warming benefits the small in aquatic ecosystems. PNAS, 106: 12788–12793
  3. Sheridan J.A. and Bickford D. (2011) Shrinking body size as an ecological response to climate change. Nature Climate Change, 1: 401-406.
  4. Alvarez E., Lopez-Urrutia A. and Nogueira E. (2011) Improvement of plankton biovolume estimates derived from image-based automatic sampling devices: application to FlowCAM, Journal of Plankton Research, 34: 454-469.
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Plankton and Policy at Challenger 2016

The Challenger Society for Marine Science is the UK’s largest marine learned society. Challenger supports marine students and early career researchers through grants and training opportunities. Challenger 2016, the biannual Challenger Society for Marine Science conference was held in Liverpool in September. Plymouth University Plankton and Policy was well-represented three of my students presenting Plankton and Policy posters: PhD student Jake Bedford and master’s students Hugh O’Sullivan and Beth Siddons. Jake’s and Beth’s accounts of Challenger 2016 are below.


Plymouth Uni Plankton and Policy – represent!

It was a great week packed with fascinating science and fun networking. I co-convened and spoke in the ‘Marine Science for Society’ session which explored how we can best use science to support decision making. Challenger is traditionally a very biogeochemistry focused society so bringing in application of science is very important to me. This was the third meeting where I’d convened a policy-focused session and I was excited to see that it was even more well attended than in 2014. The lecture theatre was full for our session and the questions ranged from ‘How can I get involved in policy?’ to ‘Do we have the data we need for decision making?’

The Marine Science and Policy Special Interest Group, which I also co-chair, sponsored a well-subscribed and exciting early career event where we invited a panel of policy makers, industry professionals and scientists at the policy interface to speak to early careers in small groups. The early career scientists had many questions about how the panellists ended up in the positions we are in now (the #1 answer was ‘unexpectedly’!), how to engage with policy and industry (our advice: tweet, blog, and practice communicating with non-scientists), and even why they should engage with non-scientists (impact!).


Fangirlling over plankton.


Haeckel’s beautiful jellyfish

One of the coolest things we got to do was view some original Ernst Haeckel plankton lithographs in his book Art Forms in Nature (pub 1899). If you don’t know Haeckel’s work, it’s beautiful and amazing and you should totally Google Image it. His life story is also dramatic and full of intrigue and would make a great Broadway musical.

I’m already looking forward to Challenger 2018 in Newcastle!

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

Challenger 2016: A PhD student’s perspective

As a first year PhD student, attending a first conference can be a daunting prospect. Being a newcomer to the marine science community, and only a recent member of the Challenger Society, I arrived in Liverpool with a plenty of positive recommendations and anecdotes from friends and colleagues of past Challenger conferences, but not much of an idea what to expect. I left Liverpool however, feeling completely at ease and inspired, having met plenty of friendly faces and having presented my research poster to a supportive and unintimidating audience. I had people from all disciplines coming up and talking to me, interested in my project and keen to offer advice. What makes the Challenger conference unique is that it is truly interdisciplinary. For example, I found the keynote talk on ‘climate tipping points’ particularly interesting, as it linked all areas of marine science together to give a holistic view of our changing oceans.


Jake with his poster “Integrating historical and contemporary plankton datasets to contribute to the assessment of Good Environmental Status: A role for indicators”

Another aspect of the Challenger conference that I really enjoyed is the variety of events and activities to get involved with outside of the core conference programme. For example, I attended the careers workshop aimed at early-career researchers. As someone who aspires to work at the science-policy interface, it was especially useful to be able to chat to both scientists and policy professionals on an informal basis about their career paths.  A common theme from the panel was to take opportunities as they come, and not to be afraid to change direction, which was a positive message for a lot of us early-career researchers to hear! I was also involved in the outreach session for local school pupils, where I explained a simplified version of my poster to small groups. Again, this was a valuable opportunity to get involved in a different aspect of science, and explaining your research to a completely non-specialist audience is a great way to clarify the main messages of it for yourself!

Jake Bedford, Plankton and Policy

An MSc’s first conference


Beth and her poster “Are MSFD plankton indicators regionally transferable?”

As an Applied Marine Science MSc student, the conference was a fantastic first foray into the scientific community. Not only was it my first conference, but also my first poster presentation. The Challenger Society is encouraging of early career scientists and the conference created a very supportive environment, so it was a great place to start. I was fortunate to receive a Challenger Society Travel Award, which helped to cover the cost of attending. The event’s mentor programme paired me with a scientist at CEFAS, a brilliant chance to pick the brain of an established marine scientist and get feedback on my research. We’ve also remained in contact since the event.

I volunteered as a student helper at the conference, which mainly meant helping with set up and being on hand during presentations to help with technical issues. It gave me some insight into the huge amount of work that goes into delivering this kind of event, a chance to meet people involved with the society and to talk with other volunteers about their research and experiences. The week was intensive, with fantastic presentations on a diverse range of subjects and networking with people from a vast range of marine science disciplines. There was plenty of time for socialising too – the conference dinner at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral was a particular highlight. It was the perfect first step toward a career in marine science.

Beth Siddons, Plankton and Policy

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How to write a scientific paper

Excellent article from @ConservBytes on how to write a scientific paper. Really helpful when you just can’t seem to get started!


Several years ago, my long-time mate, colleague and co-director, Barry Brook, and I were lamenting how most of our neophyte PhD students were having a hard time putting together their first paper drafts. It’s a common problem, and most supervisors probably get their collective paper-writing wisdom across in dribs and drabs over the course of their students’ torment… errhm, PhD. And I know that every supervisor has a different style, emphasis, short-cut (or two) and focus when writing a paper, and students invariably pick at least some of these up.

But the fact that this knowledge isn’t innate, nor is it in any way taught in probably most undergraduate programmes (I include Honours in that list), means that most supervisors must bleed heavily on those first drafts presented to them by their students. Bleeding is painful for both the supervisor and student who has to clean up the mess…

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Time-series datasets are crucial to delivering Good Environmental Status

We are on a mission in Europe to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) for our seas (Who cares about the MSFD?). As with many marine policy or conservation efforts, good data are critical to success. When it comes to GES, however, ecological time-series data, for seabirds, marine mammals, commercial and non-commercial fish, benthic habitats and plankton, are particularly important. We need ecological time-series data for the development and informing of ecosystem indicators, the setting of environmental targets against a background of climate change, and understanding our marine ecosystems in a holistic manner. Why, when they are so important, does funding these important datasets remain so difficult?

The availability of multidecadal ecological time-series datasets varies with ecosystem component – biomass of commercial fish and seabird abundance are much better monitored than large scale change in benthic habitats. When accounting for the other desirable traits of a robust dataset (sufficient taxonomic detail, spatially representative) the number of suitable time-series further decreases. Plankton, for example, respond to change at a variety of scales, from ephemeral blooms of a single species in a local area to regional-scale decadal changes in community composition. Because of their multiscale dynamics, phytoplankton datasets which are 20-30 years in length, spatially extensive and taxonomically detailed are increasingly important for supporting decision making. These sorts of plankton datasets are very rare; the UK, however, is fortunate enough to be home to the most spatio-temporally extensive plankton dataset in the world, the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey, as well as several other multidecadal fixed point plankton time-series such as L4 (PML), Stonehaven (Marine Scotland Science), and the Western Irish Sea time-series (AFBI).


Phytoplankton biomass 1960s-2000s calculated from the CPR time-series. Data and understanding gained through analysing long-term datasets, particularly those at wide spatial scales, are critically needed to inform policy objectives.

Taxonomic information provides a crucial understanding of the most basic component of biodiversity: which organisms are present in a region or ecosystem? Across all ecosystem components, fundamental knowledge of taxonomy is necessary to assess diversity, understand community dynamics, gain insights into ecosystem and species responses to climate change, detect non-indigenous species, and identify emerging scientific and policy issues. Research based on taxonomic time-series datasets forms the foundation to understand spatiotemporal changes in global distributions of species and alterations to community composition. The taxonomic construction of ecosystem indicators is therefore important to the achievement of GES. The most sensitive biodiversity indicators are based on species or functional group data. From a plankton perspective, this type of detailed, species level plankton community composition information can only be obtained through analysis by trained taxonomists. Unlike modern analysis techniques (such as automated visual identification, flow cytometry, satellite remote sensing, or fluorometry) which can only discriminate coarse plankton groups, taxonomists can distinguish a wide variety of species relatively efficiently, generating information needed to investigate diversity in complex marine systems. Several recent reviews and inquiries into the state of taxonomy in the UK and worldwide have expressed concern that taxonomy is a discipline in critical decline, with numbers of taxonomists steadily decreasing across all scientific disciplines. This means that ecological time-series with a taxonomic component, as opposed to those measuring bulk ecosystem characteristics, are increasingly in danger.

Because European seas are experiencing both climate-driven and anthropogenically-induced changes, defining targets for GES is not as easy as simply selecting a historical state to which to aspire. In some cases, due to climate change and/or multi-century human exploitation, ecosystems may never recover to the state they were in even a century ago. In the case of target-setting for policy indicators, multidecadal time-series provide necessary context between contemporary and historical ecosystem states. By considering the temporal context revealed by a long time-series, environmental targets can be selected which are both ecologically meaningful (i.e. they represent GES) and realistic (i.e. the targets reflect a vision of GES which acknowledges climate variability and past ecosystem use).

Koslow and CoutureDespite their recognised importance to scientific research and providing evidence for marine policy, sustained funding of many ecological time-series presents a challenge (Edwards et al., 2010; McQuatters-Gollop, 2012; Koslow and Couture, 2013). This is not a new problem; there is a recognised scarcity of long-term ecological datasets, particularly in non-coastal regions, driven by a lack of funding (Edwards et al., 2010; Koslow and Couture, 2013). The principal reasons for the termination of established monitoring programmes are also historically consistent and near-ubiquitous – funding is limited and a time lag exists between data collection and scientific yield (Duarte et al., 1992). Many ecological time-series that support decision making are only partially publicly funded; the CPR survey is a prime example. Supplementary funding, pieced together from disparate income sources, is required to fill this gap; this piecemeal approach is both risky and resource intensive. Not that public funding protects a time-series – the recent cuts at CSIRO may jeopardise some of their long-running monitoring programmes, with serious consequences to marine conservation efforts.

Long-term time series are essential for progressing ecological understanding and underpinning evidence-based environmental policy and we must keep repeating this message – again, and again, and again.


Abigail, Plankton and Policy


Read more:

McQuatters-Gollop, A., Edwards, M., Helaouët, P., Johns, D.G., Owens, N.J.P., Raitsos, D.E., Schroeder, D., Skinner, J. and Stern, R.F., 2015. The Continuous Plankton Recorder survey: how can long-term phytoplankton datasets deliver Good Environmental Status?. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 162: 88-97.


Duarte, C.M., Cebrian, J., Marb”a, N., 1992. Uncertainty of detecting sea change. Nature 356, 190.

Edwards, M., Beaugrand, G., Hays, G.C., Koslow, J.A., Richardson, A.J., 2010. Multidecadal oceanic ecological datasets and their application in marine policy and management. Trends Ecol. Evol. 25, 602e610.

Koslow, J.A., Couture, J., 2013. Ocean sciences: follow the fish. Nat. Online 502, 163e164.

McQuatters-Gollop, A., 2012. Challenges for implementing the Marine Strategy Framework Directive in a climate of macroecological change. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. 370, 5636e5655.


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Post doc in numerical ecology at SAHFOS


Image from Plankton Chronicles

Last week saw the launch of the Applying an ecosystem approach to (sub) regional habitat assessments (EcApRHA) project, which is coordinated by OSPAR. EcApRHA focuses on filling in the gaps of tricky policy indicators for pelagic habitats, benthic habitats and foodwebs. To support the pelagic work on EcApRHA, SAHFOS is hiring a numerical ecologist post doc. The post doc will work closely with me and the rest of the EcaPRHA pelagic work package to further develop plankton indicators for the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

Essential requirements for the post:

  • Matlab and/or R programming skills
  • Knowledge of the handling of large datasets
  • Knowledge of marine ecology
  • Preferable to have knowledge of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive
  • Willing to travel to meetings in Europe
  • Self motivated
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Publication record and a clear desire to commit to publications resulting from this position.

SAHFOS is a great place to work and this is an exciting and important project.

For more information, please see: http://www.sahfos.ac.uk/about-us/vacancies/post-doctoral-ra-in-marine-numerical-ecology.aspx 

Please advertise this opportunity throughout your networks!

Abigail, Plankton and Policy


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