Can Northeast Atlantic pelagic habitat indicators be applied to the Arctic?

Northeast Atlantic marine waters have a long history of collaborative management, with OSPAR the cooperative mechanism for marine environmental management in the Northeast Atlantic. OSPAR is collaboratively implementing ecosystem-based management in this region to meet the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) requirements to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) of European seas by 2020. Although OSPAR has recently focused on implementing the MSFD in the Northeast Atlantic, soon OSPAR will expand its efforts towards assessment and achievement of GES in the Arctic.

As part of MSFD delivery, OSPAR has developed three policy-approved, plankton biodiversity indicators for pelagic habitats in the Northeast Atlantic region. These indicators are assessed against targets representing the MSFD’s objective of Good Environmental Status. As you probably already know, plankton are particularly well-suited as indicators of environmental change in pelagic habitats due to their rapid response to changes in climate, hydrology and water quality. They are also fundamental to the marine food web and perform a number of ecological functions, such as the cycling of carbon and key nutrients.


Horrendogram illustrating international, multilateral, bilateral and national policy and cooperation influencing EBM strategies and management in the Arctic. Abbreviations: EU. Int. Mar. Pol. = EU Integrated Maritime Policy, NOR-RUSS Comm On Env. Protections = Norwegian-Russian Commission on Environmental Protection.

Governance of the Arctic is complex (see figure) and although OSPAR is also responsible for achieving GES in the Arctic Ocean, regional plankton biodiversity indicators do not exist. Fortunately, current Northeast Atlantic pelagic habitat indicators are ecologically applicable to the Arctic. This transferability is primarily due to the flexibility of the plankton lifeforms (PH1: Changes in Phytoplankton and Zooplankton Communities) and biodiversity indices (PH3: Changes in Plankton Diversity) indicators that allow selection of regionally-relevant lifeform pairs or species for assessment. However, current national plankton monitoring programmes in the Arctic are insufficient to support the implementation of these indicators. Additional regionally-specific indicators, such as for sympagic (ice-dwelling) phytoplankton and sea-ice biota, are worthy of consideration although they do not exist for Northeast Atlantic waters. Budgetary constraints and a corresponding lack of year-round sampling and long-term datasets were found to be the key limitations in the implementation of OSPAR’s Northeast Atlantic plankton indicators for establishing GES in the Arctic Ocean. Implementing an Arctic-wide plankton monitoring programme would be a significant step towards the assessment of GES for this unique and vulnerable ecosystem.

Beth Siddons,


Plankton and Policy

Read more:

Siddons, B.L., McQuatters-Gollop, A., and Glegg, G. (2018). Inter-regional coherence: Can Northeast Atlantic pelagic habitat indicators be applied to the Arctic? Marine Policy, 96: 53-64.

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Funded PhD research studentship!

Come do a PhD with me!

Funded PhD research studentship – Accelerating sea temperature growth and intensified poleward heat transfer: global and regional risk implications

Apply now. PhD opportunity beginning on 1 January 2019


Project description

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 and consequent risks to society and the insurance industry. As a new initiative in 2018, the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences is funding research as part of XL Catlin’s Ocean Risk Scholarships to examine and quantify risks to ecosystems, businesses and people from the changes taking place in the ocean. This joint project between the Marine Biological Association (MBA, including the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey) and the University of Plymouth is one of three selected this year.

The Earth is taking in more energy as heat than is reflected back into space with ~93 per cent taken up by the ocean; a rapidly increasing uptake with large consequences for the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and biosphere. Extremes of heat and other climate events appear more common. Extreme weather is one of three top risks in the Global Risks Report 2018 of the World Economic Forum. Downstream effects from increases in ocean heat have substantial implications for the insurance market and improved understanding of processes is needed to manage these risks.

The successful student will:

  • Update Reid and Beaugrand (2012) doi:10.1017/S0025315412000549 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.
  • Examine non-linear step-like changes over time in regional and global temperatures and explore mechanisms behind temperature shifts, their environmental interactions, synchrony and scale of effects around the globe. Possible links to an increased incidence of extreme events and natural disasters will be researched using e.g. the OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database.
  • Be introduced to and make use of the Argo database that enables a 3D view of the changing status of upper ocean temperature, salinity and water circulation. Apply the results to investigate risks associated with the accelerated growth in ocean heat content from ~1990.

Links to risk and the insurance industry

The speed, severity, regional expression of rising temperature and non-linear nature of some events is important for the insurance industry. Statistical analysis and interpretation of the global and regional temperature change in this PhD project will aid planning for future ocean risk through improved understanding of processes. XL Catlin will act as a risk supervisor providing opportunities for the student to work with industry professionals on the translation of regional atmospheric and terrestrial effects 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 3.5 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 £10,350 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, Friday 19 October 2018. 

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview in the week beginning 12 November 2018. Support will be provided for travel within the UK. We regret that we may not be able to respond to all applications. Applicants who have not received an offer by 30 November 2018 should consider their application has been unsuccessful.


Desbruyères D. et al. 2017. Journal of Climate, 30, 1985-1997. 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. Reid, P. C. and Beaugrand, G. 2012. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 92: 1435-1450. Wijffels, S. et al. 2016. Nature Climate Change, 6: 116-118

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Plankton as ‘prevailing conditions’

Plankton make useful indicators for large scale environmental change in our oceans. Firstly, they are very sensitive and responsive to changes in their environment, so changes in plankton ‘reflect’ wider climatic and oceanographic processes. Secondly, as the base of the marine food web, changes in plankton communities can themselves ‘affect’ organisms at higher trophic levels such as fish and seabirds. Incorporating climate-driven changes in plankton into the policy process however, is not clear. As a policy focusing on direct anthropogenic pressures that are manageable at the regional scale, the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive, for example, regards these wider environmental influences as “prevailing conditions”. To this end, if a change in plankton communities linked to climate is detected during assessments, these changes don’t contribute to plankton communities missing their target of ‘Good Environmental Status’. These definitions of GES targets and ‘prevailing conditions’ ensure targets are realistic and achievable, and management measures are implemented efficiently. The question then arises however, if we find a change in plankton communities linked to prevailing conditions during an ecosystem assessment, how can we best use this information?

SI Blog infographic

This is where the concept of ‘surveillance indicators’ comes in, first outlined in a paper by Shephard et al. (2015) They classify this new type of indicator as those that don’t have clear, quantifiable relationships with direct pressures, but can still inform on wider influences of human activities or underlying environmental change. Clearly, this type of information is important. We know through long term studies that marine ecosystems vary as a result of environmental variation, and are changing as a result of anthropogenic climate change. A strong understanding of these underlying changes in prevailing environmental conditions is needed to effectively assess and manage marine biodiversity under the MSFD.

In our new paper published in Marine Policy, we illustrate that plankton can play a key ‘surveillance role’ in marine ecosystem assessments, by informing on changing ‘prevailing conditions’. Specifically, we outline a ‘diagnostic role’ of this plankton surveillance information which aids in understanding the relative influence of prevailing conditions over direct pressures on the ecosystem, and a more ‘strategic’ role, which aids in setting adaptive targets and management measures to climate change. Importantly, this surveillance role would be additional to the primary role of plankton indicators in assessing for Good Environmental Status against more direct pressures such as eutrophication. Ultimately, plankton indicators can have a key role for the management and conservation of our marine environment, even if during an assessment indicator changes are not found to be driven by a directly manageable anthropogenic pressure.

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.

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IMCC Symposium session: From science to evidence – innovative uses of biodiversity indicators for effective marine policy and conservation

The International Marine Conservation Congress will be held in June 2018 in Kuching, Malaysia. My colleagues Ian Mitchell (JNCC), Saskia Otto (University of Hamburg), and I will be co-convening the below session. If you are interested in speaking, please send your abstract to me by 9 March 2018 at Abstracts accepted to the session will receive a session code to use when submitting to the IMCC website. You will be notified of acceptance on 10 March so you will have plenty of time to submit your abstract to the IMCC website.

Any questions – please ask!

We look forward to reading your abstracts.

Symposium: From science to evidence – innovative uses of biodiversity indicators for effective marine policy and conservation

Convenors: Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, Plymouth University; Ian Mitchell, Joint Nature Conservation Committee; Saskia A. Otto, University of Hamburg


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 rapidly developing and multiple indicator roles and features are emerging. 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. Additionally, links between pressures and biodiversity indicators may be unclear or obscured by environmental change. Finally, much practical work on applying biodiversity indicators to marine policy and conservation is developing rapidly in the management realm, with a lag before academic publication. Making best use of biodiversity indicators  depends on sharing and synthesising cutting-edge knowledge and experiences.

This session will provide examples of biodiversity indicator application in policy and conservation followed by a discussion of common themes and challenges. Presenters will describe a diverse range of applied case study uses of biodiversity indicators. Diversity and inclusivity are key to aggregating the widest-ranging collection of experiences and examples and we specifically encourage abstract applications from workers from Eastern regions and from developing countries. The session will conclude with a discussion addressing the question ‘How can we move forward with biodiversity indicator use in marine policy and conservation?’ This overarching question will be further discussed in the associated focus group session, with the objective of publishing a scientific paper on the topic.

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What makes a good pelagic habitat?

The Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) and the more recent EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008) require the conservation, maintenance, sustainable use, and/or improvement of biodiversity. However, little scientific research has been done into how to characterise and manage pelagic (water column) habitats under biodiversity frameworks, not least because of their vast scale and highly dynamic nature. With the Ecosystem Approach becoming an increasingly-applied holistic management mechanism, knowledge gaps such as these hinder the political implementation of conservation and sustainable management for pelagic habitats. In Europe, for example, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive takes an Ecosystem Approach to managing Europe’s seas with the overarching objective of achieving ‘Good Environmental Status’. A vision of what Good Environmental Status (GES) looks like for pelagic habitats and biodiversity, however, has yet to be fully articulated, but is needed to ensure high level management objectives for pelagic habitats are applied in an ecologically-meaningful manner.

To begin to address this challenge, Mark Dickey-Collas (ICES), Verena Trenkel (Ifremer), and I convened an open theme session at the 2016 ICES annual scientific conference entitled “What is a good pelagic habitat?” Here we tackled some high level questions around what the concept of ‘good’ looks like in pelagic habitats, how we can assess their quality to guide management, and how biodiversity can be considered in pelagic habitats, with their highly dynamic natures.

What makes a good pelagic habitat

Three high level criteria can be used to help articulate Good Environmental Status for pelagic habitats.


We found that for pelagic habitats to reflect Good Environmental Status they must be able to provide ecosystem services (biodiversity, carbon cycling, food provision through supporting marine food webs). We came up with three general criteria that can be used to articulate the concept of ‘good’ pelagic habitats:

  1. The pelagic habitat must be in suitable condition so that it can support the normal functioning of all species who use it, whether they spend their whole life cycle, or just part of their life cycle, in the water column
  2. The pelagic habitat maintains normal biogeochemical functioning, which supports carbon and nutrient cycling and gas regulation
  3. The physical qualities of the pelagic environment, including movement of water masses and marine organisms at multiple scales, are allowed

These three criteria allow consideration of the pelagic habitat to be based on hydrography, rather than geography. In other words, instead of defining Good Environmental Status for a place or time, what if we define it as demonstrating the above properties instead? The details surrounding GES (indicators, targets) could then vary nationally or regionally but would be in alignment with these overarching conditions. For all three to be achieved, the connection between human pressures on the marine environment and oceanography would have to articulated.

Because these are high level criteria, further work is needed to understand how to translate them fully into operational management frameworks that can actually be used to manage pelagic habitats. For example, there are still critical questions around what biodiversity means for pelagic habitats, how this can be understood through the use of plankton indicators, understanding the spatial and temporal variability in these concepts, and, critically, how this complex information can be best used to underpin marine management decisions.

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

Read more: Dickey-Collas, M., McQuatters-Gollop, A., Bresnan, E., Kraberg, A.C., Manderson, J.P., Nash, R.D.M., Otto, S.A., Sell, A.F., Tweddle, J.F. and Trenkel, V.M., (2017). Pelagic habitat: exploring the concept of good environmental status. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 74: 2333-2341.

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Priorities for the marine environment after Brexit – a biodiversity perspective

Marine biodiversity has gotten lost in the talk about what Brexit means for the UK. While some attention has been paid to commercial fisheries, including a recently-launched Parliamentary inquiry, the post-Brexit future of UK marine habitats and species has received almost no press. The UK’s marine biodiversity is beautiful, productive, and unique. Our marine species and habitats support a wealth of essential ecosystem services, including commercial fisheries, and deserve as much consideration as our post-Brexit economy, immigration, and trade systems.

The UK’s high level objective for marine environment is simply for the UK to have “clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas” (Defra, 2009). Currently, this is implemented via a host of legislation, much of which originates in the EU. The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) is one key EU policy (along with the Water Framework Directive, Habitats Directive, etc) through which the UK is delivering its high level objective. The MSFD requires Good Environmental Status (GES) for all parts of European marine ecosystems, including biodiversity, food webs, commercial fish, and pollution. As a member of the EU, the UK must deliver GES for its waters, thereby sustainably using the marine ecosystem while protecting its species and habitats, or face infraction. When we leave the EU, however, what will happen to the UK’s marine biodiversity?


Under the MSFD, Good Environmental Status must be achieved for each of these 11 ecosystem aspects (qualitative descriptors). Figure from OSPAR .

Without the legal enforcement of the EU through the MSFD there is a real danger that the UK will not deliver its current environmental protection and sustainable use objectives. Right now we are managing our marine biodiversity proactively – with clear environmental targets and objectives which must be (in the future) regionally coherent with our EU neighbours. Brexit might come with a reduced ambition for biodiversity targets, however, particularly if priorities shift from marine conservation to economic interests such as commercial fishing and coastal development. Without the legal impetus of the EU to proactively and meaningfully manage marine biodiversity, there is a risk that our management strategy may transition to a disaster-based method, where we only respond to environmental emergencies.

If funding is moved away from marine biodiversity management and monitoring, which is a real threat due to economic considerations, our ability to provide evidence for decision making will be damaged. Monitoring data are needed to detect changes in the marine environment, inform indicators, and determine whether we are meeting environmental targets. Detection of change is the first step to effectively managing our marine environment, but is dependent on the collection and analysis of robust scientific data. The UK has led the development and operationalisation of MSFD biodiversity indicators, but further work remains, particularly around linking state changes to pressures and determining the drivers of change. This information is required to help decision makers decide if and where to implement management measures, and knowledge and data gaps weaken our ability to sustainably manage the marine environment. Monitoring data also supports wider scientific advances, including blue skies research. Historically, the UK has been a leader in advancing the field of marine science, a position that may be vulnerable after Brexit.

Brexit talk priorties

Priorities for marine biodiversity after Brexit.

The marine ecosystem does not recognise political boundaries. Mobile species, such as fish and cetaceans, swim between EEZs, and therefore require transboundary management measures. It is unrealistic to manage UK waters in isolation. International collaboration is required to address transboundary challenges. Currently, the UK plays a prominent role in ICES and OSPAR, greatly influencing the European science-policy landscape. The UK has been leading the research required to support implementation of the MSFD’s biodiversity elements and contributes strongly to ICES working groups which, among many other important science-policy duties, deliver recommendations for fishing quotas. Additionally, more than 30,000 Europeans, many of which are scientists, work in UK universities (Royal Society, 2017), giving the UK access to skills that its own citizens do not possess. UK scientists work alongside European scientists, pushing science forward and devising new and innovative ways to examine and manage our environment. One of the most wonderful parts of being a scientist is working with people from different countries and in different disciplines – for all of the numbers around these statements see the Royal Society’s Snapshot of the UK’s Research Workforce. With the Immigration Bill still in debate, freedom of movement of people is in jeopardy, risking isolation of UK scientists from the rest of the European scientific community, and presenting challenges to our current close collaborative relationships. In turn, the cross-border collaboration which is essential for progressing delivery of the MSFD and a wider Ecosystem Approach to management, and for advancing scientific research, is in jeopardy.

Brexit talk Black or white

Possible scenarios for managing UK marine biodiversity after Brexit.

Of course the status of UK marine biodiversity post-Brexit is not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or ‘black’ or ‘white’. There are gradations of cost and opportunity. One of our best case scenarios is continued delivery of the MSFD through OSPAR, with sustained sustainability ambition. A medium case scenario could be to leave the MSFD completely, but continue to proactively manage UK marine habitats and species in isolation. This scenario, however, would have transboundary risks for mobile species, and would largely negate the ecosystem approach, unless we find some way to work closely with our European neighbours. Either of these scenarios, however, could provide the opportunity for the UK  to better manage our marine biodiversity, perhaps through integrating marine environmental management with fisheries management. A worst case scenario would be to leave the MSFD completely and stop proactively managing species and habitats, instead only responding during environmental catastrophes or disasters. The scenario we end up with in March 2019 could be one of these or something else altogether. Either way, marine biodiversity deserves to be recognised as an important and special attribute of UK waters, which should be managed proactively, sustainably, and with an Ecosystem Approach.


Abigail McQuatters-Gollop,

Plankton and Policy



This blog post was inspired by a talk I gave at the October 2017 British Ecological Society/Marine Biological Association “The Marine Environment after Brexit: the future for science and policy” event in London.


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Decreasing primary productivity linked to decreased fishery production – an opportunity for management?

As the ocean’s major primary producers, phytoplankton are the base of the marine food web, with changes to their abundance, biomass, and community composition resonating upwards through zooplankton to fish, seabirds, and cetaceans. Our understanding of the direct relationships between different levels of the food web is often challenged by a lack of biological data, the confounding effects of multiple pressures (including climate change), and spatial variability in marine environments. From a policy perspective, however, knowing how changes in one part of the food web impacts other parts of the food web is critically important to successfully managing marine biodiversity and fisheries.

As a shelf sea, the North Sea is highly productive, with commercial fisheries a key cultural and economic sector for most countries in the region. In European countries fishing is managed through the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The CFP ensures regional countries are allocated fishing quotas for commercial fish stocks. Though many European fish stocks continue to be overfished, some of recently recovered, due to improved fisheries management (Engelhard, Lynam, Garcıa-Carreras, Dolder, & Mackinson, Environ Cons, 2015). Fishing, however, is not the only regulator of commercial fish stocks. The health of fish stocks is also dependent on the health of lower trophic (food web) levels, such as plankton and forage fish, which support commercial stocks as prey. This ‘bottom-up’ regulation of fish stocks is influenced by climate change and natural ecological variability as well as direct human pressures such as eutrophication, which decreases water clarity and increases nutrients resulting in changes in plankton communities.

Capuzzo et al

Interannual variation in annual primary production (PP), mean abundance of small copepods, and large copepods, and a standardized index of fish stock recruitment (including sandeel, sprat, herring, Norway pout, cod, haddock and whiting), in the North Sea

Using long-term biological time-series, our new paper found that during the past 25 years, primary productivity has significantly decreased throughout the North Sea due to warming sea surface temperatures and decreasing anthropogenic nutrient inputs (the decreasing nutrients are a positive response to improved sewage treatment and farming practices in the EU). A corresponding decrease was also found in the abundance of small copepods, which graze on phytoplankton, and the recruitment of key commercial fish species such as sandeel, sprat, herring, Norway pout, cod, haddock, and whiting. These changes suggest bottom-up control of fish stock productivity in the North Sea – from climate and nutrients to primary production (phytoplankton), and from primary production to zooplankton and fish recruitment.

The recognition that fishing is not the sole pressure influencing North Sea fish stocks could be used to set more realistic fisheries quotas, which consider changes in plankton productivity as a key influence on commercial fish stocks. This holistic vision of the marine ecosystem is exemplified in the ecosystem approach to management, which focuses on integrated management of marine ecosystems to reach sustainability. Though information from lower trophic levels is not yet routinely used to set CFP quotas, the food web links described in this paper are already being used to manage biodiversity through the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). In fact, one of OSPAR’s MSFD pelagic habitats indicators, Change in phytoplankton and zooplankton communities, serves as an indicator of both plankton and food web change, information which is used to set management measures for OSPAR countries. As our knowledge about food web dynamics develops, we have the opportunity to manage our marine ecosystems in an increasingly sustainable way.

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

Read more:

Capuzzo, E., Lynam, C.P., Barry, J., Stephens, D., Forster, R.M., Greenwood, N., McQuatters-Gollop, A., Silva, T., Sonja M. van Leeuwen and Engelhard, G.H., (2017). A decline in primary production in the North Sea over twenty-five years, associated with reductions in zooplankton abundance and fish stock recruitment. Global Change Biology, doi: 10.1111/gcb.13916.

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A ‘strong and stable’ marine ecosystem?

Long-term monitoring time-series are most important during times of political uncertainty such as Brexit, but it is these times they are most at risk.

 The UK marine environment faces an uncertain future. Cumulative pressures from human activities are being placed on the marine ecosystem against a back-drop of large scale prevailing climate change. Arguably however, it is changes in the political climate of the UK that have the potential for the largest impacts, whether negative or positive. Changes in governance structures, when they vary in both their environmental ambition and effectiveness, can have major implications for marine biodiversity.

Britain’s exit from the European Union (‘Brexit’) affects many aspects of the governance structure put in place to ensure our marine natural resources are used sustainably, and biodiversity is protected and conserved. As well as many EU-level activities such as fishing and trade now falling on domestic legislation to regulate, EU directives guided the formation of a lot of domestic regulation with regards to marine biodiversity. Although the result or outcome of a European directive is legally binding, it is up to member states to achieve that result with their own legislative measures. For example, through the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive the UK must assess and monitor the state of marine ecosystems against the overall target of ‘Good Environmental Status’, using the evidence from monitoring programmes to inform management measures. Therefore, although the management measures themselves were always up to the UK itself to design and implement, a possible loss of enforced monitoring and assessment obligations as a result of Brexit raises the important question facing both scientists and policy-makers: How will we even know if Brexit is a success for marine conservation?

Sustained ecological time-series are needed for the UK to achieve its vision of a ‘clean, healthy and biologically diverse’ marine environment post-Brexit

Traditionally, scientists evaluate the success of marine management measures by systematic monitoring of biodiversity to evaluate the effects of management interventions, an application of monitoring data known as ‘Type 3’ monitoring. Here, the state after a management intervention is compared with baseline data, to evaluate any benefits. Arguably therefore, sustained time-series data is also needed to evaluate whether Brexit, overall, has negative, or positive, consequences for the UK marine ecosystem. In the same way an economist may use the value of the pound as an indicator of the economic outcomes of Brexit, ecologists can use indicators of biodiversity state to evaluate the environmental outcomes of Brexit. It is an unfortunate irony therefore, that long term ecological time-series are threatened. A lack of reporting obligations and diverted resources might lead to monitoring programmes further slipping down the list of priorities for marine management post-Brexit. However, if the UK wants to retain an effective governance infrastructure, long term monitoring programmes are essential. A limited monitoring capacity fundamentally reduces our core ability to detect, diagnose and respond to ecosystem change, therefore reducing the capacity for ecosystem-based management. Ultimately, we need to sustain ‘stable’ long term time-series datasets to deliver ‘strong’ outcomes for the marine environment.


Plankton and Policy

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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.


Abigail, Plankton and Policy

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