Category Archives: Uncategorized

A #Scicomm Spring takes off

Public interest in environmental issues is as high as I can remember and takes all sorts of forms from pollution, climate change, policy and assets. This is having an affect on our spring and summer where  our group at Essex is involved in a wide variety of science outreach and communication events. Alice Lown is about to leave for Canada at the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity to speak about her new paper on links between native oysters and associated species, I am joining Will Baker and the Essex Wildlife Trust at the Mersea Food Festival to highlight ENORI and other estuary research the University is involved in (End May), then there is the Colchester #PintOfScience where we will present the history and future of native oyster restoration around the Essex coasts (Mid May) and in June I will represent ENORI and their many members at an exciting event organised by the Bluemarine Foundation in Plymouth on new approaches to effective marine conservation in the UK. And this was one of those quiet summers!

After a break it all kicks off again at the FSBI annual meeting at UEA in Norwich – where Matt Bond is presenting his experimental work on harvest slot management for fisheries and Nick Brown and Fiona Watson are presenting work on effects of fishing on behaviour and interactions between fisher behaviour and fishery outcomes. At this event we all meet with our new group member joining us in October to study sea bass behaviour in muddy Essex estuaries – its busy but exciting!

I haven’t covered everyone and I am sure now that I have posted this I get knocks at the door from those in the group not mentioned telling me they are off somewhere too!

Hope we get to see you at one of these events.



In response to Bernard Jenkin MP

Dear Editor

Mr Bernard Jenkin MP is correct to highlight in his November column that there are many opportunities for the UK fishing industry, in particular the inshore fishing fleet, for a new era of UK marine management in light of Brexit. However, the narrative that he portrays that the misfortune of European fish stocks, and the associated economic losses for British fishermen, is a fault of the European Union is not entirely grounded in truth. I will respond to Mr Jenkin’s piece in three parts, first by examining the role of the British government and its fishing industry in the historical mismanagement of fisheries prior to the UK joining the EU and the generally successful role of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in the recovery of those poorly managed fish stocks, next by examining what political decisions have really held back inshore fishing fleets as well as the communities that depend on them, and finally by considering the “opportunity” narrative of Brexit.

It is certainly a widespread view within the fishing industry that the EU is to blame for their economic woes. Catch and abundance data clearly demonstrates that most European fish stocks were already overfished and yet catch effort for these stocks was still increasing when the Common Fisheries Policy was established in 1983. For North Sea cod as an example, prior to collective management through the EU, annual landings from all states were at least 200,000t in most years from 1967-83. In that same period scientists assessed that the total spawning stock was between 150-250,000t in most years. Even assuming a simple fisheries prediction of taking 50% of adult stock approaches the maximum sustainable yield it is clear that state-based management led to dangerous overfishing and by the mid to late 1980s the collapse of North Sea cod.

It was first in the late 1970s when landings by UK vessels experienced a sharp decline due to the Iceland cod wars and then again in the 1980s to late 90s when the significant economic impacts caused by the poor management of other North Sea stocks by individual state governments, allowing their fleets to heavily overfish, began to hit communities all over the UK and Europe. Throughout this period, the EU got a bad name with fishermen through decommissioning schemes and zero catch allowances in order to help fisheries recover. Unlike the narrative Mr Jenkin is trying to portray the EU quota-based management system that started from 1983 has in fact led to the recovery (also see here) of most of our quota managed stocks in EU waters despite strong lobbying from individual states and industry to maintain high quotas. This is particularly the case in NE Atlantic and North Sea stocks such as cod, haddock, plaice and sole.  The documented history of recovery of fish stocks from quota management is one issue on which scientists and many fishermen agree, but it seems to have passed unnoticed by some politicians in Westminster.

But just because most stocks are now growing in size does not mean that the CFP is perfect. Fisheries science is not perfect as we do not know enough about all of our fish stocks, evidence led policy is not perfect as recommendations by scientists are often compromised by both UK and EU ministers due to political pressures and lobbying from industry, and it is also the case the many fish species not managed by quota are still declining (most Mediterranean and southern EU stocks do not have quota management).  An example important to Mersea fishermen would be sea bass, where control measures to reduce EU wide catch have only come about since 2013 when it was already heavily overfished by all nations and a catch limit only came into place in 2015.  A quota based approach is long overdue for sea bass, and there are opportunities to introduce this while supporting inshore fisheries.

In summary, quota-based management and associated stock recoveries has led to recent year on year increases in revenues for the UK fisheries sector to £682 million contribution to GDP in 2016. So while Mr Jenkin states that “The CFP has also failed through its quota system and other initiatives, to effectively manage fish stocks” – this is simply not true. While it could be said the CFP quota negotiations are not ideal, perfect or indeed flawed due to their political nature  – for example the UK is one of the nations that walks away from CFP negotiations with quotas set way above the levels recommended by ICES scientists – it is clear that had anyone in Westminster or elsewhere in Europe taken the initiative to start shared international quota discussions earlier much hardship could have been avoided for UK fishermen and their families.

Mr Jenkin goes onto discuss the role of the EU in the demise of the UK inshore fishing fleet. This is an issue particularly close to my heart and working with the fishermen of Lowestoft and Mersea it is frustrating to hear this simple but untrue narrative that their demise lies with the EU. It is certainly true that in managing the complicated balance to conserve stock and bycatch species that comes with mixed species inshore fisheries, the EU issues many technical and catch limit measures that affect the inshore fleet. These include limiting catch of bass when fishing for plentiful cod, or limiting catch of blonde ray when fishing for plentiful thornback ray. These species specific catch limit measures have conservation in mind but can close down inshore boat activities as it is too easy to catch the conservation species quota even with selective fishing like long lines.

These are the “one size fits all” rules Mr Jenkin complains about and it is true they are frustrating – but they would not be as frustrating if the UK government adequately supported the inshore fleet with an appropriate quota.  It is not the EU that decides how to allocate the UK’s quota between different vessels, indeed DEFRA does this through a variety of mechanisms, but mostly dependent on historical catch records. As inshore vessels never had to record their catch this biased against them. It is important to note that the larger quotas to larger vessels allows them to target the big offshore bounties that make significant contributions to the total GDP UK fishing generates. Based on these two factors, catch records and national GDP, many decisions by the UK have been made that are of little benefit to the majority of UK coastal towns. An example is allowing UK quota in Lowestoft to be bought by overseas companies. Now North sea plaice are recovering this UK-based decision seems particularly short sighted.  This decision has devastated the Lowestoft port and its community. So while UK fishing industry revenues are growing again the profits are going to a small number of larger offshore vessels and companies that own large shares of high value stocks (e.g. whitefish and pelagics). The UK currently distributes less than 2% of its quota to inshore fishing vessels although by number they are more than 75% of the boats. It would of course hit the total profitability of the sector to shift more of the UK quota to the smaller less effective inshore fleet, but this would greatly improve the regional economics of small coastal towns and have a tangible effect on marine conservation as these smaller boats can fish in a way that has much less impact on the marine environment (e.g. long lines, gill nets, pots and light dredges). Other UK decisions have had extremely negative effects on Essex fishermen, the mainstay of the Mersea fleet for example has been the Thames sole fishery and here too it was decisions in London that permitted large scale dredging of sole spawning habitats which has devastated the recruitment of this species.

It is very much a pre-EU overfishing and an issue of quota distribution within the UK fleet and poor marine habitat protection that has led to the demise of the UK inshore fleet – this fleet can be both ecologically and economically sustainable as long as Westminster-based ministers would decide to act. Clearly these UK Government decisions could have been taken decades ago, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit or “regaining control” as Mr Jenkin alludes.

I want to end on a high. Bernard Jenkin is a friend of the University of Essex and I thank him for his recent support. However rewriting history to pin a narrative of UK fisheries decline on the EU, while a simple story to tell, is demonstrably false. While many academics are passionate “remainers”, we are also passionate about good policy and governance and we will fight for it for the good of UK society. It has therefore been a welcome few weeks where environment secretary Michael Gove has been sending all the right messages of the importance of biodiversity and independent environmental oversight post Brexit, where Richard Benyon and Boris Johnson have been asking us all to #Backthebluebelt. They have reminded us that including our overseas territories the UK has the 5th largest marine estate and the UK should be leaders in marine and fisheries management. Finally it has been welcome to hear many NGOs, campaigners and academic policy pushers explore potential shifts in the UK quota management system to address the historical bias against out smaller inshore vessels. So there are indeed many issues to be positive about the UK marine sector, and while Brexit does bring challenges to fishing in the UK, Brexit is yet another opportunity for us all to get good policy in place for fishing to thrive.


Yours Sincerely

Dr Tom C Cameron

School of Biological Sciences

University of Essex

PS…..Bernard thank you for your support of the Essex MCZ in the December column!

The #Brexit letter to Universities

There is so much to think about, and say about, the letter from MP Mr Chris Heaton-Harris to UK University Vice Chancellors asking them to provide to him names of lecturers who might each on European affairs, particularly Brexit. And asking them to arrange for his access to online teaching material.

When I heard the news myself I was interested and a quite enraged. But to be honest, when I read the letter any rage I had fizzled out. Putting aside whether this was planned to coincide with or helped promote the front page headline in the daily muck, the letter is not in itself frightening.

If it really is about research for writing a book, what is more infuriating is that Mr Heaton-Harris is trying to outsource his research to others. I mean what a lazy thing to do – I want to do some research for a book but I am going to use my MPs privilege to request information at others expense (very expensive if you are asking VC’s to do this) instead of getting onto Universities open access facing websites and finding out the module managers names, writing to each of them and explaining what I am trying to achieve and why (i.e. my book) and asking if she/he could ask their colleagues if I could access or see a PDF of any lecture material or syllabus.

Yes this would take time and effort. That is what independent research takes.

But of course this was not about a book at all (its still lazy if it was non book based research!).  Its a shame really because if it was imagine how less of a story this would be if the letter had said….

Hello, I am researching a book in a personal capacity and I would like to explore the formation of attitudes about UK membership of the European Union by young people attending universities and I want to explore a sample of teaching content at your University in undergraduate courses that explore European Studies. Is there any way that your Institution could help me with this. If I am needed to attend on site I am able to do so …etc etc

You know a polite and informative letter with some background. But that didn’t happen.

As others have pointed out, Mr Heaton-Harris is surely a polite gentleman and knows how to go about requesting information appropriately. My conclusion therefore is this was no genuine letter for book research but a stunt. Bait. A dig at a part of society Mr Heaton-Harris does not agree with.

There have been many things said about the letter already. I am not going to repeat them much. One of the things that has not been said is that the University would have to gain permission from individual educators before giving that information away. Certainly any material would have to edited, perhaps in a transcript of some kind. Mr Heaton-Harris may have had much more luck just setting up a social media platform and seeking lecturers to upload any material they have directly.

Another thing that has not been discussed is the merging of private and professional views on huge topics like Brexit. This is a very challenging area. But not at all specific to Academia – ask someone in any industry or profession and they will have views on Brexit on issues that do and do not affect their area of employment. There is unlikely to be any topic at a University that is not affected by the Brexit debate. Either on the personal side due to the vast numbers of colleagues we have at Universities who are not from the UK, or the professional side due to the vastness of issues that are influenced by EU law and its implementation by the UK.

I am a passionate Remainer and very much hope Brexit is reversed. If asked, I will tell this to students. If campaigning I will say this on social media or in person giving out leaflets or holding signs. As is my right. This is not because I think everything about the EU is great – infact in my profession of the environment there’s lots of room for improvement. I just don’t believe that it would have been better for our environment outside the EU over the last 50 years. And I believe that much could be changed in the EU to improve its environmental credentials in such a way that not just relatively wealthy countries like the UK can take the hit for protecting nature. So my personal views on Brexit are actually generated by different aspects and context of the consequences for society that those consequences for the environment that influence my professional views.

In class I do not teach “European affairs” but I do teach both conservation, marine and fisheries biology. All of which are heavily influenced by the EU and Brexit. In my teaching I do take the opportunity to make some points in favour or what the EU has been good for – for example in providing a “common market” for the costs of good environmental behaviour by member states. But I also take the opportunity to teach when the either EU law has not been so effective – for example in putting production and GDP over scientific decision making in agriculture or fishing – or when UK implementation of that EU law is poor – for example in the very local scale  application of “population” trends under the Birds directive or in successive UK ministers failing to give enough of our fisheries quota to inshore fleets starving most coastal communities of a heart (Not an EU mandate). Overall, from across the topics that I teach I can see where and when the EU has not lived up to its expectations and when it has. I can also see when and where UK government ministers have (and have not) failed in their duties to use EU law for the betterment of the natural environment and for less well off communities.

As an educator I also have responsibility for the future of the students I tutor, whether they be undergraduate or postgraduate students I believe their futures are brighter in the EU with freedom of movement that outwith the EU. Yes I hear good points made by various colleagues that FoM has robbed good home grown talent of many opportunities at home institutions. I have experienced this personally and it really hurts. When I examine this I consider that I have benefited from FoM and EU pennies that took me abroad making me more competitive for a job in the UK at a later point. Yes the world is bigger than the EU but nationalism in employment has always been a threat and is again on the rise.  When I also examine the motivations for ending FoM this is a dangerous debate as where it stops is not clear – sure its fair to ask if a French woman can take a lectureship that could have been undertaken by a Brit ( I say sarcastically) – well what about asking if a Scot should take that same job when it could have been undertaken by an English candidate or vice versa…. it becomes scary. So overall – in thinking about the future of the young people I have a duty of care to I do promote to them that their horizons should extend beyond our shores and certainly that the EU FoM was and still could be an excellent scheme to facilitate this (see aside comment on this below).

In all of these issues above, the merging of personal and professional views on Brexit, my teaching in biological sciences and my guidance of young peoples futures, THIS IS NOT BIAS. This is context, and material for discussion and debate. The debate is within reason of course because much of the material I use is evidenced. I can give opinion, but I must justify how that opinion was formed and explain how other opinions could be formed using other justifications (with critique when appropriate).

So in summary the really annoying thing about this letter and the associated headline, other than the lie about researching a book and how lazy Mr Heaton-Harris would have been if that were true,  is the idea that having an evidenced discussion that forms an opinion that on balance across all areas Brexit is not …dare I say wise… is bias. It is no more biased than to say given all the information before me I think that climate change will have positive effects on some species and negative on others, but on balance I think it will not be a good thing for our current environment.

All this being said, academics do have to be careful.  Myself included. There are lots of positive opportunities for improvement of policy through Brexit. Absolutely none of these opportunities are dependent on Brexit per se – all of these opportunities could be delivered by the EU if the UK and other states requested them. Most of them could be delivered by the UK independently of the EU before Brexit – but they were not. So let me say instead that Brexit is yet another opportunity to improve existing and generate new policy initiatives that can improve society and the environment – for example the redistribution of more of the UK fishing quota from the offshore more damaging and more profitable large fleets to the less damaging less profitable inshore fleets. The difference now is that some current UK ministries are so extremely keen to show how the UK can lead on policy initiatives in the Brexitocene that these initiatives are more likely to gain support than ever before. Academia must remain an honest broker – it must support good policy when it is seen – but that does not mean it cannot be critical of how it was achieved.


An Aside on FoM – FoM was a huge part of the Brexit debate. The data speaks for itself – despite my hurt at loosing out on a job here and there on average neither my income or employment status are affected by FoM. Only in the lowest earning categories of professions did FoM fail society. This should have been recognised earlier and fixed – it did not require Brexit to be solved. The EU were wrong to rule out discussions on this point – as many EU leaders have since indicated.



Camouflaged Crabs

Well done to Alice Lown, PhD in our group for yet another excellent contribution from working on her previous project with Martin Stevens at Exeter.

Ossi Nokelainen, Nik Hubbard, Alice E Lown, Louisa E Wood, Martin Stevens (2017) Through predators’ eyes: phenotype–environment associations in shore crab coloration at different spatial scales. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, blx101,



Students love #fishsci

We are expanding how much fish science we undertake in the Coral Reef Research Units and Freshwater lab mostly because of the demand from students to get involved. We are particularly interested in how temperate and tropical reefscapes respond to changes in herbivory and how fishes respond to environmental change – ocean acidification and temperature in particular.

These are two new additions to the group – some tomato clownfish (Amphiprion frenatus) – that like our common or true clownfish we are hoping will breed.

Diversity is everything including everyone

Its easy to take diversity for granted. And I really do mean that in all sense of the meanings of diversity. As part of a ‘Uni’ training course I am working in a team with four colleagues from across the campus who I would have otherwise never met – from Law, Marketing and  Human Resources. Not only are we diverse but our project is about how others view diversity in the people they meet on campus – never quite such an important topic have I had the pleasure to work on and especially so in the current socio-political climate when “ecology rules” – i.e. when competition and hardship is perceived cooperation declines.

But it also strikes me exactly how diverse our PGR/PGT research community is. Over the last few months I have recruited four new Tropical Marine Biology masters. They are amazing and they are just this week embarking on their projects – two in the field studying Herbivory in the Indo-Pacific and the Mediterranean and two working in the #fishsci labs on fish growth and behaviour. In addition we have two Masters by dissertation students – who are working on development of sustainable marine economic policy and reef herbivory respectively.

Half of this group are not from the UK. Of those 2/3 are not from Europe. Isn’t that wonderful! Just amazing that as a person working in lil’ ole British Isles we get to meet people from all over the world. It would be easy to take this for granted – it was not always thus – and it would be easily lost.

Are drivers of algal blooms changing?

The classical understanding of what drives blooms of freshwater algae and phytoplankton – warm water and nutrients – probably stands. In fact a recent whole lake experimental study in the USA found that available phosphorous was still the main predictor for cyanobacterial biomass and could be detected in enough time to take preventative action (Pace et al. 2016). But water bodies are variable – especially in size and chemistry and whether this longstanding pattern is ubiquitous is not clear. Here in the south of England we have large eutrophic drinking water reservoirs but little catchment rainfall – so water bodies are often a mix of water sources pumped from what can be different catchments. Despite this an early look at long term data suggests Phosphorous availability is highly correlated with algal biomass.

The problem is long term data is bias – there is more of it in the past when some of the more recent multi-stressors on freshwater environments were not so prominent, especially temperature.

We at Essex  – myself, Eteinne Low-Decarie & Graham Underwood – are investigating the control of algal production, algal community composition and the biochemical feedbacks from algae (e.g. gases) in reservoirs in southern England. We will be starting up a number of lab and field based projects over the coming months and one such project – characterising control of algal production in pelagic and littoral reservoir habitats – is starting this week spearheaded by PhD student Amie Parris. So look out for our updates on Twitter!

Fiona joins the team in Biology At Essex

Fiona Watson has just started her PhD in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex in a collaboration between Edd Codling in Mathematics and Leanne Appleby Hepburn and myself in Biology. Fiona will be investigating the role of movement and dispersal (note that they are different :0)  ) in interactions between fisheries managements and marine protected areas. Welcome Fiona!