Plankton on the move

The distribution of organisms globally is governed by the range of environmental conditions each organism can tolerate. For example, temperature is a key variable structuring the distribution of life on earth. Whereas some organisms have wide temperature tolerance, so can be found across a variety of latitudes all with differing temperatures, many organisms have narrow temperature tolerances, and so the range of areas they can live are more restricted. In the oceans, global climate change means that these boundaries between different temperatures are becoming ever more obscured. Areas of warming that were historically too cold for survival may now be habitable for species needing warmer water, but species with narrow temperature tolerances may be forced out as it becomes too warm for their survival. These ‘range shifts’ lead to a global reshuffling of the distribution and abundance of biodiversity, which has profound implications for environmental policy and conservation management.  For example, range shifts mean that our concepts of native vs not-native species are being tested i.e., which species are ‘meant’ to be in a certain area because they occur there naturally, and which ones aren’t., This distinction is important for detecting and managing any negative impacts of ‘newly occurring species as a result of climate change. Similarly, range shifts affect fisheries policy. As fish move into different areas, they will become potentially exploitable by commercial fisheries. This means that fisheries managers will need to assess whether any newly occurring species can be fished sustainably and set appropriate management measures. Understanding range shifts is also key for building resilience to climate change through effective policy, for example placing protected areas in areas that are relatively sheltered from the effects of climate change.

Plankton are a key example of range shifting taxa in the oceans. Due to the sensitivity of plankton to changes in their environment, the distribution of different plankton species is tightly coupled with environmental conditions. In the North Sea for example, there has been northward movement of key ‘isotherms’ (lines on a map connecting points of the same temperature), as the water warms due to climate change (Beaugrand et al. 2009). With these isotherm movements there has been an increase in warmer-water affiliated copepod species as they expand their range into warming waters, and a decrease in colder-water species, as their range moves northwards chasing colder refuge. Phytoplankton have also shown range shifts, but the extent to which phytoplankton track the moving isotherms differs between groups of species, contributing to community reshuffling (Chivers et al. 2017). There have been also been parallel shifts in the abundance and distribution of species higher up the food web including in commercial fish. As such range shifts in plankton are important indicators that climate change is impacting food-webs and ecosystem functioning.

Calanus helgolandicus, a warmer-water copepod, is replacing C. finmarchicus, a colder-water copepod, as the North Sea warms.

In July 2019 we presented trends in plankton distributions found from the Continuous Plankton Recorder survey at ‘Species on the Move’, a conference series on range shift science, this year held in South Africa. A particular focus of the conference series is on the implications of range shifts for policy and management. We illustrated how the monitoring of plankton indicators is key for meeting regional and global biodiversity targets. We also highlighted however, that distributional shifts are not often explicitly managed under many policy frameworks, and that the relevance of range shifts is not always clear to policy makers for their day-to-day decision making. It is therefore vital that scientists frame evidence on species range shifts in a policy-relevant way to ensure effective communication, ultimately facilitating the adaptive management of marine ecosystems under a changing climate.

Jake, Plankton and Policy

Read more:

Bedford, J., Johns, D., Greenstreet, S., & McQuatters-Gollop, A. (2018). Plankton as prevailing conditions: a surveillance role for plankton indicators within the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Marine Policy. 89:109-115.

Plankton on the move: implications for global biodiversity goals


Beaugrand G, Luczak C, Edwards M (2009) Rapid biogeographical plankton shifts in the North Atlantic Ocean. Global Change Biology 15:1790-1803

Chivers WJ, Walne AW, Hays GC (2017) Mismatch between marine plankton range movements and the velocity of climate change. Nature Communications 8:14434

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Why do we need a global plankton diversity monitoring programme?

When most people think of biodiversity they think of iconic habitats like rainforests and coral reefs. Much of the ocean’s biodiversity, however, is too small to see without a microscope. Plankton are one of the most diverse groups of organisms on the planet. Critically, they underpin the marine foodweb and produce 50% of global oxygen – one out of every two breaths we take is produced by marine plankton. Plankton also respond quickly to environmental change and they aren’t widely fished. These features make plankton ideal indicators for ecosystem assessments to inform decision-making. To use plankton to inform decisions, however, extensive data are required. The Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey is unique amongst marine biological datasets in that the North Atlantic survey spans nearly 90 years, with the CPR network now including surveys in the Southern Ocean, Australia, the North Pacific, and New Zealand. Although not quite global in scale (yet!), the CPR survey is world’s longest and most spatially-extensive marine ecological dataset.

Upper panel shows the CPR transect locations together with the year of inception of that local survey. Lower panel shows the combined total number of CPR samples that have had plankton counts determined (from Batten et al. 2019).

The CPR’s sampling and analysis methodologies have changed very little in the past 8 decades which is one of the reasons for its success. Long time-series datasets, particularly those that sample at the spatial scale of the CPR, are incredibly rare in the marine environment but are critical to enabling us to detect responses to human pressures, including climate change. Though the CPR itself hasn’t changed, the applications of the survey’s data have multiplied from investigating local and regional scale change in plankton as food for fish to examining climate-driven changes at a basin scale (for examples see Table 1 in Batten et al. 2019 – or my CV which is filled with publications using this unique dataset!). CPR data can also be used in synergy with other datasets, such as satellite data, and CPRs themselves can be instrumented with sensors to simultaneously collect oceanographic data while still collecting plankton samples. These coincident datasets strengthen our ability to understand change in plankton and the foodweb at multiple scales.

CPRs ready for deployment

The CPR survey has co-evolved with policy drivers, and data from the CPR survey have been particularly successful at informing policy, in the UK, EU, and internationally. CPR data and science have contributed to ecosystem state assessments in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. At the European level, two indicators for the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive were developed based on CPR data. The extensive spatial scale, multi-decadal time-series, and taxonomic richness of the CPR survey have placed CPR science at the forefront of evidence provision for high-level policy and management advice. Data and research from the survey have informed high profile and strategic global marine assessments such as the IPCC status reports and the United Nations World Ocean Assessment. These international assessments are key to raising the profile of marine ecosystem change and are widely read by those on both sides of the science-policy interface.

Further opportunities exist for CPR data to contribute to global policy mechanisms such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) post-2020 global biodiversity framework, and the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity Beyond Boundaries of National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). For SDG14: Life Below Water, CPR data can provide scientific evidence useful in development of global indicators to report the achievement for the Goal 14.1 on pollution, 14.2 on ecosystem-based approaches, 14.3 on ocean acidification, and 14.5 on marine protected areas. Such indicators could be developed and assessed at the regional or basin scale and reported through national mechanisms, enabling direct comparability between seas and national waters and allowing examination of change in a global context. Plankton information including the CPR data are currently not used in the global indicator suites of the current CBD framework or Aichi Targets despite the fact that the CPR’s scientific quality and data coverage could actually exceed the requirement of these indicators (Chiba et al., 2018). It is clear there is still work we can do, and additional applications of the CPR to policy.

SDG14 – all about the ocean

I am proud to have worked at the CPR survey for 8 years, and although I’m now at the University of Plymouth, I’m definitely a friend of the CPR and work closely with the team. This is an important and unique dataset that is unparalleled in enabling us to understand ocean change. The data and science arising are therefore critical to informing the robust evidence base we need to make good decisions about how we manage the marine environment. As we approach the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) the importance of expanding the CPR’s global monitoring programme is greater than ever.

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

Read more:

Batten, S.D., Abu-Alhaija, R., Chiba, S., Edwards, M., Graham, G., Jyothibabu, R., Kitchener, J.A., Koubbi, P., McQuatters-Gollop, A., Muxagata, E., Ostle, C., Richardson, A.J., Robinson, K.V., Takahashi, K.T., Verheye, H.M. and Wilson, W., (2019). A Global Plankton Diversity Monitoring Program. Frontiers in Marine Science:

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Communicating science to policy: Parliamentary POSTnotes

The transfer of science from academia into policy is a challenge that is lamented at science and policy workshops, conferences, and meetings. In the UK we are actually improving this knowledge transfer process through joint science-policy working groups, co-production of papers and proposals, and formal knowledge exchange opportunities, such as the Defra and NERC fellowships that I hold. One of my favourite mechanisms for ensuring science is presented to policy-makers in a targeted and timely way is through the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology POSTnote series. POSTnotes are short, focused, scientific syntheses on a current or upcoming topic of policy importance. Each POSTnote is written and coordinated by a PhD student who speaks to 30-50 expert stakeholders, and thoroughly reviews the literature, to construct a short, 4-page briefing critically reviewing the state of the art of the subject, challenges and opportunities around the topic, and, future societal implications. POSTnotes are succinct enough to read quickly and so clearly written that the reader can easily understand the content, making them an effective tool to communicate science to decision-makers. In fact, I am such a fan that I even have my masters students write POSTnotes for one of their assessments!

I have recently contributed to my second POSTnote (the first was about UK Fisheries Management) and am really excited about the end product. This POSTnote, entitled Climate Change and Fisheries, was authored by James Stewart of University of Exeter and Dr Jonathan Wentworth (POST Environment Advisor), and examines the implications of climate change on UK fisheries. Some brief highlights include:

  • Climate change, including ocean acidification, is driving changes in fisheries habitats as well alterations to the distribution, abundance, and health of commercial fish
  • Climate change effects can be exacerbated by other human pressures, such as eutrophication and habitat loss
  • Fisheries will need to adapt to climate change, but this is challenging since the impacts of climate change on the fisheries themselves are not well understood
  • Achieving sustainable management of fisheries is key to preventing overfishing and ensuring healthy stocks

You can find out more about POSTnotes and how to get involved by following them on Twitter at @POST_UK.

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

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Putting the science in science-policy


Achieving Good Environmental Status most definitely requires science-policy collaboration. At the OSPAR level, for marine biodiversity, this collaboration happens through ICG-COBAM (the Intersessional Correspondence Group on Coordinated Biodiversity Assessment and Monitoring). Our delivery of the 2017 Intermediate Assessment, the first ever holistic assessment of marine biodiversity at the OSPAR scale, is a testament to the success of science-policy collaboration. However, as we approach our next assessment (the 2023 Quality Status Report), it has become clear to the scientists that we just need more time to talk science. At the normal COBAM meetings, which are a mixture of scientist and policy-makers, the focus is on meeting deadlines and policy delivery, which are both important, but don’t help progress the scientific aspects of indicator development and interpretation.

A gratuitous shot of the Eiffel Tower.

In response to this, in June 2019 the COBAM ecosystem component leads convened, for the first time, a SUPER (Assessing Biodiversity Status Under Pressure: towards an Ecosystem Resilience approach) COBAM workshop. This workshop had a clear focus on the science we needed to achieve in order to deliver the 2023 QSR. Unlike most COBAM meetings this workshop was purely technical and targeted cross cutting issues common to all of the ecosystem components such as threshold setting, integration, and how to best use limited resources.

The SUPER COBAM workshop was a huge success, attended by 40 technical experts across pelagic habitats, benthic habitats, food webs, birds, and mammals. It was refreshing and fun for all of us to talk science together for five days and we left the workshop stimulated and looking forward to the challenges coming up with the 2023 QSR assessment. Thank you to our colleague, Laurent Guerin, from the amazing Muséum national d’histoire naturelle for organising and hosting such and productive week!

The museum had an oceans exhibit which featured plankton!

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

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Funded PhD research studentship!

Come do a PhD with the Plankton team at University of Plymouth!

Applications are invited for a three and a half years PhD studentship. The studentship will start on 1 October 2019.

Director of Studies: Professor Philip (Chris) Reid

Second Supervisor: Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop

Additional supervisors: 

  • Professor Gregory Beaugrand, CNRS, Wimeroux, France
  • Dr Eric Gobberville, Sorbonne Université, France

Project description

Rationale: The studentship will research how the development and propagation of warm sea surface temperature anomalies from tropical seas towards the poles contributes to rapidly rising global temperature with consequent risks to marine ecosystems, fisheries and sea level rise, and with downstream effects on polar seas, society, the global economy and the insurance industry. This joint project between the Marine Biological Association (MBA) – Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey and the University of Plymouth is funded by the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences as part of AXA XL’s Ocean Risk Scholarships to examine and quantify risks to ecosystems, businesses and people from the changes taking place in the ocean.

Scientific context: The Earth is taking in more energy as heat than is reflected back into space with ~93% taken up by the ocean; a rapidly increasing uptake with large consequences for the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and biosphere, including the occurrence of extreme events. Extreme weather was one of the three top risks in the Global Risks Report 2018 of the World Economic Forum. The report followed the most intense month on record for extreme weather events (September 2017) and the most expensive US hurricane season since 2005. Also in 2017 large wildfires in the USA, Chile and Portugal, after a major El Niño, led to casualties and large economic costs. The term ‘ecological Armageddon’ was used in the same year by researchers to highlight the scale of global biodiversity loss and its consequences for fishery resources and agricultural systems. There is an urgent need to assess the broader implications of ocean warming and improve understanding of processes to better mitigate and manage change and evaluate possible future impacts on the insurance market.

Main objectives: The successful student will:

• 1. Update Reid and Beaugrand (2012) for the whole ocean, including its western boundary current ‘heat motorways’ and response to the 2014/16 El Niño, as an introduction to the manipulation and statistical analysis of large gridded datasets.

• 2. Examine non-linear step-like changes over time in regional and global temperatures and explore mechanisms and consequences of these shifts, such as trophodynamic changes and impacts on exploited resources.

• 3. Evaluate possible links to increases in extreme events and natural disasters using e.g. the OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database.

• 4. Utilise the Argo database that enables a 3D view of the changing status of upper ocean temperature, salinity and water circulation to investigate risks associated with the accelerated growth in ocean heat content from ~1990.

Links to risk and the insurance industry

Risk is the chance of something harmful or unexpected happening – in the case of this project from the speed and severity of rising temperature. The project will be of benefit to insurers through improved understanding of processes and planning for future ocean risk. AXA XL will act as a risk supervisor providing opportunities for the student to work with industry professionals on the translation of regional consequences of ocean warming to a risk scale relevant to the insurance industry.

Training, research facilities and working environment

Hosted jointly by the MBA and the University of Plymouth the student will be primarily based at the superbly located and friendly MBA Laboratory. Both institutions have excellent computing and other facilities. Training in the use of a high-level programming language such as Matlab and compatible database programs will be provided and are essential for the success of the research. A wide range of standard and innovative statistical techniques and data processing tools will be available. Networking with other graduates in the MBA and University will be encouraged. Opportunities to help with lecturing, practicals and assessment and to gain experience in science-policy issues and analysis techniques will be available with training in risk analysis techniques and the science-policy interface.

Selection criteria

Applicants should have (at least) a first or upper second class honours degree in an appropriate subject and preferably a relevant MSc or MRes qualification. A high degree of computer literacy is required preferably with experience of Matlab programming and working with Matlab and/or R statistical packages.


The studentship is supported for three and a half years and includes full home/EU tuition fees plus a stipend of £14,553 per annum. The studentship will only fully fund those applicants who are eligible for home/EU fees. Applicants normally required to cover overseas fees will have to cover the difference between the home/EU and the overseas tuition fee rates (approximately £12,285 per annum).

Further information

If you wish to discuss this project further informally, please contact Philip (Chris) Reid at McQuatters-Gollop, Gregory Beaugrand at or Eric Gobberville at However, applications must be made in accordance with the details shown below.

General information about applying for a research degree at the University is available at:

Please apply via the online application form.

Please mark it FAO Aimee McNeillie, clearly stating that you are applying for a PhD studentship within the School of Biological and Marine Sciences. Please attach a covering letter detailing your suitability for the studentship, a CV and two academic references.

For more information on the admissions process, please contact Aimee McNeillie.

The closing date for applications is 12 noon, Monday 22 July 2019. 

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview within two weeks of the closing dates.  Applicants who have not received an offer by 30 July 2019 should consider their application has been unsuccessful.


Desbruyères D. et al. 2017. Journal of Climate, 30, 1985-1997, doi: 10.1175/jcli-d-16-0396.1.

Reid, P. C. 2016. In Explaining ocean warming:causes, scale, effects and consequences, pp. 17-45. Ed. by D. Laffoley, and J. M. Baxter. IUCN (see: doi: 10.2305/IUCN.CH.2016.08.en).

Reid, P. C. and Beaugrand, G. 2012. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 92: 1435-1450, doi:10.1017/S0025315412000549.

Wijffels, S. et al. 2016. Nature Climate Change, 6: 116-118, doi: 10.1038/nclimate2924.

Beaugrand et al. 2019 Nature Climate Change, 9: 237-243, doi: 10.1038/s41558-019-0420-1.

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Senior Policy Fellow: I’m now a (part-time) civil servant (advisor)!

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.

Only a true policy nerd is this excited to be at the House of Commons!

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 policy.

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!

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

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Brexit and Ecology

A great post from Sam Perrin exploring what Brexit means for ecology in Europe.

Ecology for the Masses

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.

View original post 1,001 more words

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Influencing the future of UK fisheries – providing evidence as a witness in Parliament

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).  

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

Read more: Parish, N. and Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Committee, (2019). Beyond the Common Fisheries Policy: Scrutiny of the Fisheries Bill. Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Committee, House of Commons, UK Parliament, London, 38 pp.

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How can we use marine biodiversity indicators for marine conservation policy and management?

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.

What 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 and practitioners.

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.

Figure 1. Bibliographic analysis of publications on biodiversity, ecological, or ecosystem indicators in general and for marine systems specifically. (A) The number of publications using one of the indicator terms [biodiversity (green shading), ecosystem (blue shading), or ecological (gray shading) indicator(s)] between 1975 and 2017 (total of 2502), and the number of publications using these terms in relation to marine systems only (white trend line; total of 457), shown in relation to the years when three significant international or regional legislative frameworks were implemented. (B) The geographic distribution of a subset of 1430 publications across marine ecoregions (Spalding et al., 2007), extracted from publication abstracts and keywords. The bibliographic data were queried from the Web of Science database (accessed last Sept 18th, 2018). Figure modified from McQuatters-Gollop et al. 2019.

Like the 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.

Strategies 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.

Figure 2. Indicator communication formats should vary in level of technical detail depending on the policy audience. Figure modified from McQuatters-Gollop et al. 2019.


Biodiversity indicators are now an essential tool for effective marine conservation policy and management. We have identified challenges around their application as well as solutions to meeting those challenges. Some of these I’ve summarised here, but our paper contains further detail, analysis, and case study examples. IMCC5 presented a unique opportunity to discuss the state of the art of biodiversity indicator development and application among an international community of applied researchers and practitioners. As we approach the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), we must develop strategies to address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14 – to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. Marine biodiversity indicators will be critical to meeting the targets associated with this ambitious goal.

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

Read more: McQuatters-Gollop, A., Mitchell, I., Vina-Herbon, C., Bedford, J., Addison, P.F.E., Lynam, C.P., Geetha, P.N., Vermeulan, E.A., Smit, K., Bayley, D.T.I., Morris-Webb, E., Niner, H.J. and Otto, S.A., (2019). From Science to Evidence – How Biodiversity Indicators Can Be Used for Effective Marine Conservation Policy and Management. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6. DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00109

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How can marine parks enhance coastal cities?

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.

The good news is there is a plan to right this wrong and create the UK’s first National Marine Park right here in Plymouth, Britain’s Ocean City, and the best place in the country to have a National Marine Park (admittedly, I may be a little biased).

Plymouth – Britain’s Ocean City and soon to host the UK’s first National Marine Park.

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).

Figure 1: Marine parks can help address multiple Sustainable Development Goals. Modified from Pittman et al. 2019.

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).

Figure 2: Marine parks can increase access to and pride in the marine environment. Modified from Pittman et al. 2019.

As the lyrics say:

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments