The Fishy Business of Brexit

fishing-boat-1281272_960_720Before you start to feel bad for the fishermen (fisherpeople?) on the Thames, here are some facts:

1) Quotas are important. If we fish all the fish, there are no more fish. The fishing industry has been utterly unable to regulate itself. EU quotas have led to the glacially slow recovery of managed stocks, because the quotas are higher than scientists advise. We need lower quotas combined with no-take zones, otherwise there will be no industry at all. Furthermore, UK quotas are divided among UK fishermen by the UK government so if one individual boat loses out it’s not necessarily the EU’s fault.

2) Three large companies own 61% of all fishing quotas. This isn’t about Michael Gove’s father alone on a tiny boat in a stormy sea. This is an industry monopolised by millionaires who are fighting regulation, just like all other industries. Viewed in that light it is completely unsurprising that “Big Fish” has joined Farage, alongside his banker allies.

3) Fishing rights to certain waters are set based on historic use. The fisheries industry does not want that to change because British boats are in loads of places that definitely aren’t British.

I know emotive stories about these poor Scots in their woolly jumpers and orange hats are relatable, but (as always) it is more complicated than that. It is completely understandable that they are unhappy: the history of their industry has generated a lot of jobs that simply cannot be supported through sustainable fisheries. It seems that the fishermen think Brexit would lead to higher quotas. Someday quotas might increase, but only if ecosystem-based management leads to increases in stocks that can support higher quotas, and that is the point of the EU Common Fisheries Policy.


Climate change interferes with our use of animals to judge water quality

Background: Water quality is measured in a number of different ways: measuring levels of chemicals and pollutants, measuring temperature and other physical parameters, and monitoring the animals and plants that are living in the water. The theory is that the animals and plants living in the water have certain requirements of their habitat (particularly a need for clean water) and so you can use the presence of certain “fussy” animal groups as a proxy for water quality. The problem is that, under climate change, species are moving around as environmental conditions – especially temperature – changes.  This means that changes in the animal and plant communities at a given site might give the appearance of an increase in water quality while actually the arrival of new species is simply the result of climate change.

What we did: I analysed an extensive dataset of British dragonfly and damselfly (known collectively as the “Odonata”) sightings to look for a pattern of geographical movement since 1960.  Dragonflies and damselflies are an important group in biological water quality monitoring, as they are particularly sensitive to pollution.  I found that the patterns of water quality that would be detected using Odonata at a generic site would appear to change over time with the changes in Odonata communities, independent of any changes in water quality.

Importance: Biological communities are used extensively in the monitoring of freshwaters and this research emphasises the need to take distributional shifts that occur as a result of climate change into account when using this method. It is likely that water quality is improving, with better treatment of wastewater and better enforcement of environmental regulation, but accurate monitoring is the key to continuing improvement. Secondly, this paper demonstrates once more the fact that Odonata are responding to climate change.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “The impact of climate-induced distributional changes on the validity of biological water quality metrics”, was published in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment in 2010. You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Image credit: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0,

Ponds are dynamic habitats, which makes it tough to conserve biodiversity…

Background:  When an area is designated as a site for conservation or special scientific interest that is usually because one or more species of interest have been found or the community as a whole is unique or exceptional. However, the implicit assumption in this approach is that if you come back tomorrow then those species or that community will still be present. If the habitat is dynamic, with frequent population-level extinctions and colonisations, then it may be that this assumption does not hold. Pond ecosystems represent one case where the habitats are small and relatively easily affected by external variables and which may, as a result, vary in their conservation value over time.

What we did: Andrew Hull and Jim Hollinshead have been monitoring ponds in Cheshire (northwest England) for almost 20 years. A set of 51 ponds were surveyed in 1995/6 and again in 2005, meaning that we can test whether or not over this 10-year period there was any change in the conservation value of the ponds. Pond surveys recorded all plant and macroinvertebrate (i.e. invertebrates larger than about 1mm, which was the size of the mesh of the net) species in the ponds and we compared (i) the diversity, and (ii) the conservation value of the ponds between the two surveys. Plants showed similar levels of diversity in both surveys, so highly-diverse ponds in the first survey remained that way in the second. However, invertebrate diversity was not correlated between surveys, meaning that species rich ponds in the first survey did not necessarily remain that way. For both groups there was not correlation between conservation value (calculated based on the rarity of the species in the community) in survey 1 compared to survey 2.

Importance: Ponds are highly variable ecosystems and that is one of the reasons that they support such a wide range of species on a landscape scale. However, it seems that this variability may make it difficult to conserve them adequately, since conservation value is changing over time. This finding supports the conservation of pond clusters, rather than individual sites, which are more likely to contain a stable species pool.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored. This paper, entitled “Temporal dynamics of aquatic communities and implications for pond conservation”, was published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation in 2012. You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Image credit: Alison Benbow, CC BY 2.0,

Leeds Big Data Week (big data for conservation biology)

I’m excited to be a part of Big Data Week this year. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the phenomenon of big data, IBM has a pretty good definition.  In essence, we are collecting huge amounts of data by virtue of living in a technologically advanced world, and those data are collected rapidly in a diverse range of formats. The challenge now is what to do with all of it! Big Data Week, which is running from 22-28 April 2013, is an international movement that was established in 2011 to connect businesses, data scientists, and technology groups to explore novel social, political, technological and commercial applications of big data.  Leeds Data Thing is my local big data group, formed in 2013 to provide a venue for the discussion of local big data applications.  They are putting on a range of events for BDW 2013, and I have volunteered to give a short presentation at one of those events.

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