It’s been a busy year in plankton science for policy in the UK and OSPAR. Much of our work focused on further developing our ability to assess the state of pelagic habitats through the Improving Confidence Evaluating GES for Regional Assessments of Pelagic Habitats (ICEGRAPH) project. ICEGRAPH is an EU-funded project, led by University of Plymouth, in collaboration with the UK’s key plankton monitoring time-series. Below we’ve highlighted our key results and achievements. Here’s to an even more productive 2020!
The UK is an island nation and our cultural identity is tightly linked to the sea. As well as being home to a bounty of wildlife, ranging from intricate intertidal invertebrates to bustling seabird colonies, our marine ecosystems provide a multitude of services including fisheries and carbon sequestration. The UK marine environment however, faces ongoing pressures as a result of varied and cumulative human activities, as well as undergoing fundamental restructuring as a result of climate change. Given our connection to the marine environment, and these ongoing pressures, an assessment of the state of nature for the UK must include marine as well as terrestrial biodiversity. An up-to-date overview of the state of marine biodiversity is therefore included in the RSPB State of Nature report for 2019 (embargoed until Oct 4, 2019).
Marine biodiversity in the UK is monitored and assessed under an overarching framework called the UK Marine Strategy. The aim of the UK Marine Strategy is to achieve a sustainable, balanced level of human activities that allows marine biodiversity to flourish and the flow of ecosystem services to be sustained. To develop the Marine Strategy, a concerted effort has been undertaken to develop a suite of indicator metrics for different components of the marine ecosystem. In order to ensure alignment with this key policy framework, the State of Nature report drew on these indicator metrics for reporting on marine biodiversity trends. Data that inform these indicators for the State of Nature assessment came from a variety of sources.
For example data on plankton, which form the base of the marine ecosystem, was provided by the Continuous Plankton Recorder survey. The CPR survey has been monitoring UK phytoplankton and zooplankton communities since 1931, with consistent, comparable data available since 1958. This unique 60 year time-series has been achieved through partnerships with ‘ships of opportunity’ including passenger ferries and cargo ships, which allows a collection of plankton samples at large spatial scales.
The CPR survey has revealed key plankton trends, largely related to the signals of climate change. These include an increase in the proportion of warmer water copepod species with increasing Sea Surface Temperatures, and an increase in the Phytoplankton Colour Index (PCI), which measures the ‘greenness’ of the silk of each CPR sample, and is a proxy for total phytoplankton biomass. As shown in the State of Nature report, this index has shown a clear increasing trend in UK seas since 1958. For example, in the Northern North Sea, the PCI is 67% higher than it was in the 1960s.
The reporting on trends in the composition of plankton communities followed the UK Marine Strategy by aggregating individual taxa into broad functional groups known as lifeforms. In contrast to conserving the populations of birds and mammals, when assessing and managing plankton biodiversity the emphasis is on maintaining a healthy community composition, rather than maintaining high abundance and richness. Through monitoring the relative abundance of different lifeforms, changes in the structure and functioning of lower trophic levels can be monitored. For example, small and large copepods are two key functional groups of zooplankton that have different roles in the ecosystem and may support different trophic pathways. As functional changes in plankton, such as the size composition of copepods, can affect higher trophic levels, plankton lifeforms help provide context for marine conservation and management.
The State of Nature report highlights the complex and interactive drivers affecting marine ecosystems. As well as large-scale climate change trends, fishing continues to damage the seafloor and alter the size composition of fish communities, although recovery in abundance is shown for many fish species from historical over-exploitation. Noise and plastic pollution are also emerging threats. Moving forward, it is crucial that these cumulative impacts on biodiversity are tackled through innovative and progressive management interventions. For example, it is highlighted in the report that although management measures have been documented in 60% of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the UK, they are only fully implemented in 10% of sites. By fully adopting an ecosystem approach, for example through well-enforced, whole-site based MPA management, declines in key habitats and species can be halted. This in turn will help build resilience in the ecosystem to future climate change.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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),
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.
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
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: doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2019.00321
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
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
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.
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!
Professor Gregory Beaugrand, CNRS, Wimeroux, France
Dr Eric Gobberville, Sorbonne Université, France
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.
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).
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.
In fall of 2018 Defra (UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) advertised for a Senior Policy Fellow – Marine to work with Prof Ian Boyd (Chief Scientific Advisor) and his team to develop a systems approach to thinking about marine evidence. I applied for the position and have been awarded the fellowship! For two days per week I’ll be seconded into Defra, though I will still be based here at the University of Plymouth. The systems research programme is new and innovative and aims to drive the development and use of quality science to shape key Defra policies and the fellowship is both prestigious and influential. This is a particularly exciting time to be involved as the work that we will be doing will help to shape the UK’s environmental management after we leave the EU.
My fellowship, therefore, is all about increasing our
capacity to make good decisions about how we manage the environment. I’ll be
working with Defra colleagues but also further developing partnerships outside
the civil service with the goal of increasing the scientific evidence base
available for decision making. There is a lot of great science happening in the
UK that just doesn’t get into the decision making process, but there are also
research gaps that we need to fill to make good decisions. I will work to
facilitate the transfer of science into evidence for decision making and also
to identify research gaps along with opportunities to fill these gaps. I will
learn loads, too, as I gain further experience in marine fisheries, pollution,
and invasive species, in addition to my expertise in biodiversity science and
I’m particularly interested in getting to better understand
the internal workings of the civil service. I’ve worked closely with civil
servants and policy makers for 10 years on evidence provision, but always from
the academic side, rather than from the policy side. I am looking forward to
learning more about how the civil service works, what happens to science as it
becomes evidence, how the Defra prioritises its work, and how different bits of
government join up.
I am really excited about the amazing high-level opportunity
to be embedded in Defra and can’t wait to get started!
The last three years have seen some serious political upheaval in the European region, Brexit being perhaps the pinnacle of that. It’s an issue on which everyone has an opinion and which no one seems to have any answers to. So I thought that this week I’d try to put together a synthesis of sorts on how Brexit will possibly affect the ecological science community. Below are a series of links to articles that describe the affect of Brexit on, and responses by, the ecological community.
The UK practices evidence-based environmental policy making, where scientific data and research play a key role in informing decisions about how we manage the environment. Much of the UK’s scientific knowledge, however, lies outside of Parliament and Government. Parliamentary Inquiries are one mechanism which brings external expertise about particular issues into Parliament. In December 2019, I provided oral evidence as witness in the House of Commons as part of the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry scrutinising the new Fisheries Bill. The UK Fisheries Bill is the plan for how the UK will manage our fisheries once we leave the EU Common Fisheries Policy, a subject which has been a high profile and controversial aspect of Brexit. Committees find oral witnesses in several ways, such as through calls for written evidence, for example, but the Committee invited me based on my reputation in marine conservation and my ability to speak about science in non-technical language. A Committee representative briefed me in advance on topics about which I would be interrogated. I then prepared by reading (and rereading) the new Fisheries Bill and explanatory notes, the previously-published Fisheries White Paper, media articles about UK fisheries, and books and literature around fishing and MPAs. I also consulted colleagues with Parliamentary, fisheries policy, and legal expertise to ensure that I thoroughly understood the Bill and how it links to conservation. Additionally, I notified my MP (Luke Pollard – Shadow Fisheries Minister) that I would be appearing. Every time I’ve appeared as a witness or speaker in Parliament I’ve notified my MP so that he is aware of my involvement, as his constituent. I later found out he watched my testimony and then used it as evidence during a different part of the scrutiny procedure, which was pretty amazing!
On the day of the Committee session, I arrived at the Palace of Westminster and met the other witnesses, some of whom I already knew, outside the Committee room. We chatted about the Bill until we were called in to testify. During preparation I’d outlined clear notes (colour-coded by topic for quick reference – what a nerd) and I brought these up with me during my examination. The Committee isn’t there to trap or trick the witnesses, but to increase their level of understanding on a subject, so it’s fine to refer to notes or to ask to do further research before responding later in writing. I tried to speak slowly and clearly, without using jargon, when responding to Committee questions, and I made sure to make my point first before backing it up with evidence. It is definitely intimidating facing a semi-circle of MPs in a very formal setting, and knowing that your testimony is being broadcast live online and will remain viewable forever. However, I tried to remind myself that I was the expert and I knew what I was talking about, and the Committee was interested in my opinion and the evidence supporting it. Acting as a witness isn’t a contest to demonstrate that you know the most about a subject, but it is an opportunity to help deliver science directly into the policy process as targeted and specific evidence.
My main concern with the Bill was the lack of mandate for achieving sustainable fishing. The Common Fisheries Policy requires EU Member States to fish sustainably by 2020. The UK’s new Fisheries Bill, however, only has sustainability as an objective, with no legal requirement. If we don’t manage our fisheries sustainably we may seriously damage our fishing industry. Michael Gove, Secretary of State of the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, declared that the UK should lead the world in sustainable fishing. That may not happen, though, if sustainability is treated as an optional objective rather than legally mandated. The good news is that the bill is still in review, with amendments under consideration to improve its sustainability. You can track the bill’s progress here.
Being directly involved in decision making in this way was an amazing experience, and when the EFRA Committee’s report on the Fisheries Bill Inquiry was published I was excited to see they’d recommended improvements based on my (and other witnesses’) testimony. I was also interviewed on local radio and for the regional newspaper about my contribution, raising the profile of my research, sustainable fishing, and my University. Although appearing as an oral witness in Parliament is scary and requires significant preparation, the reward of helping improve environmental management and conservation is definitely worth it. The Fisheries Bill will be further scrutinised and hopefully improved before it becomes law. Getting this right is important to the future of UK seas, so look out for further updates about the Bill both here on Plankton and Policy and on my Twitter (@anaturalstate).