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, Assessment, 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

Posted in Marine Conservation, MSFD, Plankton, Policy | 1 Comment

Implementing the MSFD in Europe – an OSPAR COBAM workshop

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

Abigail, Plankton and Policy

Photo by Jane Hawkridge

The OSPAR COBAM team. Photo by Jane Hawkridge.

2017-05-23 19.29.38

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

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A funded plankton PhD opportunity at Plymouth!

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

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

Apply for the PhD

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

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

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

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


(c) Plankton Chronicles

Further project details and application information:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can apply via the online application form which can be found at: and click ‘Apply’.

2015-10-15 10.54.36

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

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Reflections on the science-policy interface

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

How much core understanding is enough understanding? ecaprhalogo

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


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

How much evidence is enough evidence?

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

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

EcApRHA is truly a European collaboration.

EcApRHA is truly a European collaboration.

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

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

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

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

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

Jake Bedford, Plankton and Policy

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