Let me lay my cards, face up on the table.  I spent my formative years in Shetland in the 1970-80’s in a fishing village where skippers were kings and life pretty much revolved around fishing, the sea, the weather and Shetland culture.  It was the experience of helping out on my father’s fishing boat that made me want to be a marine biologist – all those weird creatures that came up in the old fashioned and inefficient box dredge – starfish, sea cucumbers, algae, “scabby man’s heids” (echinoderms) and of course scallops and queenies.  In the days before GPS we used to watch out for rafts of gulls that would indicate shoals of mackerel just below the surface feeding on baitfish. Like many brought up by the sea and involved in the fishing industry, I love it.  I work with fishers and have had a few contracts around developing fisheries management plans, avoiding catching cod and helping ensure fair payment for gear displacement by offshore developments.  There are some rogues and there have been some bad practices by fishers in the past but I think that the fishing industry gets an unfairly bad press.  I often disagree with fishers but I also have a lot of time for what are an interesting, brave and entrepreneurial group of people.

The movie Seaspiracy sets out to tell the world how fishing is not sustainable, eating fish is bad for you and whale populations are declining because of plastics.  As @Taotaotasi illustrates it’s a disjointed affair with the storyline zipping from whales and plastics, whaling, tuna fishing, shark finning, ineffective institutions, coral reefs, overfishing, salmon farming, mangroves, slavery and MPAs.  It’s a mix of discussion highlighting issues that are of concern and misinterpretation of or wild exaggeration of the science.

Early in the film he highlights the importance of whales in the Carbon Dioxide cycle.  They dive deep to feed, bring the food to the surface where they defecate thus fertilizing the upper regions of the ocean where you find tiny plants (phytoplankton).  More wales = more fertilization, possibly.  Krill, along with many other pelagic animals, also take part in this regular dance from the deep to the shallows, collectively in temperate regions it is referred to as diurnal vertical migration.  According to the International Whaling commission the numbers of whales around the world look to be increasing, recovering from the decimation since the end of the 2nd world war.  The narrator makes a link between plastic debris and deaths of whales through ingestion of plastic, however according to the IWC, “clear cases of ingested marine debris causing deaths remain few and scattered”.

There is a lot of focus on people driving cetaceans ashore to butcher them in Taigi (Japan) and the Faeroe Isles.  The former has only being going on since 1969 and is said to be driven by the sale of dolphins to ocean life centres and the sale of dolphin meat.  He also claims that in Japan it’s driven by the desires of fishers to reduce competition for fish.  The Faeoese whale drive is a much older and ingrained traditional affair and the meat is eaten (there is a good documentary here that explores the issues in the fishery in Faeroe).  It’s not a particularly pleasant spectacle but the animals are quickly dispatched and the folk that eat them are the folk that kill them.  These are pilot whales which are not thought to be endangered. Ironically these animals, along with large tuna are going to be less attractive as food because they have significant amounts of mercury in them.  There are ongoing investigations relating to the health effects of consuming too much whale meat in the Faeroes.   The truth is, as he points out later, that these events are pretty minimal in the grand scheme of things – maybe a 1000 dolphins a year in Japan.  More cetaceans are killed as bycatch in other fisheries.

He states that Pacific Bluefin tuna are at 3% of their original stock levels and that they are endangered.  They are neither.  Current stock levels are 4.5% of the biomass you would expect if fishing effort was zero and it is rebuilding so that the stock has improved to vulnerable status.  Still not fantastic but it illustrates that the relatively young science of fisheries management is having a positive impact (the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission was only established in 2004).  Many stocks of tuna are in relatively good condition and international management measures are improving all the time.  Satellite based monitoring systems are likely to improve management further.

He states that shark populations have dropped to 1% of their origin.  Again, this is needless exaggeration. It is true that Oceanic sharks are thought to have declined by ~70%.  For many shark populations we just don’t know, others such as the Blue shark appear to be at equilibrium or in decent condition. He suggests that 90% of large fish have disappeared.  This is just wrong. The figure is based on a paper that used catch data (which are not a good measure of population size) from a Japanese longline fishery.  He made a statement about a 99% decline in cod.  I can’t work out exactly where that came from (there have been numerous nonsensical stories about cod over the last 20 years including one about there only being 100 cod left in the North Sea) but it is patently not true, overall Atlantic cod are increasing in number. Stocks are doing poorly in the south of their range and in the Western Atlantic – this is likely to do with warming water impacting on reproduction and survival.  Shark finning gets a mention too – I find this practice abhorrent, it is wasteful.  Shark fisheries require particularly careful management due to long generation time and low reproductive rates.

He repeats the completely discredited assertion from 2006 that suggested that by 2048 there would be no fish left in the sea and we would be eating jellyfish.  The original authors of the paper no longer stand by that assertion.  It’s nonsense.  There is a suggestion that large scale extraction of fish isn’t sustainable.  This is just rubbish.  The best managed fisheries, with robust data collection, good science and observer coverage are the large scale fisheries.  These also happen to be the best fisheries when you consider CO2.  Large and efficient purse seiners use less CO2 per kg landed than those romantic wee boats that you find in rural villages.

We can’t catch fish because we don’t know where to draw the line

This made me laugh out loud.  There is uncertainty in fisheries management (along with most other aspects of life) and I’d argue we do know where to draw the line.  There are instances where we don’t get it right but these are becoming fewer.  In the face of an exponentially increasing human population, fisheries management has done pretty well to stabilize fishing effort in most fisheries.  According to the FAO, 67% of fisheries worldwide are now thought to be managed sustainably.

I agreed with much of the section on aquaculture although I think salmon farmers have got a bit better at not feeding fish to fish.  Open pen salmon farming is an awful practice and I try to avoid eating farmed salmon.  Open pen marine aquaculture is not the answer.  Wild fish are a much healthier food choice and are a renewable resource.

If people can’t eat fish they will turn to other sources of protein.  This is discussed in relation to the exploitation of seas around Africa where legal EU boats and illegal fishery pirates are overfishing stocks that local artisanal fishers depend on.  He claims that in the absence of fish people turn to bush meat and then links that to Ebola.  I’d like to see evidence linking these but it is true that if people cant eat fish they will eat other animal protein.  People will not turn vegan because they can’t access fish. If they did that would bring its own environmental concerns. I’d argue that fish are a healthier source of protein and their consumption is less damaging to the planet.  The environmental costs of many terrestrial sources of protein in terms of CO2 and Biodiversity loss are much higher than most fisheries. George Monbiot suggested that the only way to save life in the oceans is to stop eating fish. He suggests that fishing is the main issue threatening the integrity of the oceans. This is patently nonsense. The proportion of threatened fish species is the lowest of any group or animals.

Fisheries management has generally been an overwhelming success. In the face of an exponentially growing population landings from marine stocks have plateaued. They have plateaued because of stronger fisheries management and we continue to improve. Obviously there are issues, as there are with agriculture, big pharma, transport and social inequality.

To me the biggest problem in fisheries (well everything really) is inequality.  Rich nations develop robust management systems but still want to eat cheap fish.  They therefore import fish from countries with weaker management systems – for example Australia with its robust spatial management imports 60-70% of its fish from human consumption from Thailand, Vietnam (and New Zealand).  The rich nations export or offshore their environmental issues elsewhere – this isn’t just a problem in fisheries.

Inequality rears its most ugly head in relation to poor labour practices in some fisheries.  There are parts of the world where this is an issue and it is important to keep up pressure on government and supermarkets to end this practice.  Twenty years ago I was an observer on a longliner around South Georgia in the South Atlantic.  The Namibian crew on the boat were paid US$25 a week for a 7-day week.  The sister ship to mine sank with many crew losing their lives – the observer on that boat was a hero and wrote a book about the experience. I have been picking away at the issue since then.  It was an example of marine aprtheid where all the white officers were from the wealthy north and the black crew were from poverty backgrounds in rural Namibia. Poor labour practices mostly happen in Asia and around Africa but we also have a two tier system in the UK and Europe with some boats hiring migrant labour at 50% of the cost of local workers.  But while these are issues of concern and grab headlines, they are not in every fishery by any stretch of the imagination.

This is a disappointing documentary, it’s more about the narcissism of a privileged young white boy talking about things that anyone with a smidgeon of interest in marine conservation can tell you are problematic – Japanese whalers, shark finning, plastic pollution, open pen salmon farming, inequality, tied together with a tissue if falsehoods, exaggeration and nonsense. There is no “big reveal” here.  By breaking the law in Thailand and interviewing without a permit he may have put some poor guy at risk – someone who could very well be dead or imprisoned now.  He interviewed a social scientist who really is trying to help make changes – without informing her of the direction he was taking or what the film was for.  These are worryingly unethical behaviours and I’d be surprised if @netflix were happy with it. He picked on soft targets, folk trying to make a difference in a complex world and I think probably selectively edited the interviews to try and show the interviewees in a bad light.  This guy isn’t an environmental hero.

If you want to keep up with the real science around fisheries and people who really are trying to make a difference, I recommend bookmarking @TrevorABranch pages of all time must read and annual must read papers. In putting this article together, I’ve leaned heavily on the library (@SustainFishUW). The site has an interesting article about how misinformation gets into the public understanding of fisheries.

If you have read this article and are concerned about the environment, it should just be a starting point. Read more, inform yourself, take nothing at face value, listen carefully to opposing viewpoints, be ready to change your mind when faced with good evidence. You won’t learn much living in an echo-chamber.

If there are any errors in this piece – please let me know, give me evidence and I’ll correct them.

If you are a twitterer see comments by @BlahaFrancisco, @Taotaotasi, @Jack_IM9, @BD_Stew, @JamesBellOcean and @SeafloorScience


Fisheries and Brexit; #brokenbrexitbritain?

In 2016, after the Brexit referendum, I was lampooned and derided for posting a tweet with #brokenbrexitbritain in it and suggesting that Brexit would be a disaster for the UK in general and the fishing industry in particular.  Despite fisheries’ totemic position in the Brexit debate and a flotilla of fishing boats sailing up the Thames, including ironically the Dutch-owned Kirkella, to advertise what a wonderful thing Brexit would be, I didn’t believe for an instant that the Conservative party would sacrifice big business finance for the minuscule (0.15% GDP; equivalent to peppa pig sales) fishing industry.  I also believed that Real Politik would rule the day – the larger partner in international negotiations invariably wins.  It turns out, I was right – Brexit is a disaster for fisheries and I’m pretty sure will be problematic across our economy. My understanding is that there was only one person in the room during negotiations with any sort of fisheries expertise but that faced with talented and well prepared EU reps, they said virtually nothing during discussions.

Pandemic admissions – levelling up

My university is a mid-ranking institution with pockets of excellence that serves a range of students (in terms of BTEC and A-level results).  Both aspire to excellence overall of course but we are not Oxbridge. I am proud of the opportunities that we give students from low participation areas and our record in launching careers for many who may be the 1st to attend a university.  You can keep your ivory towers, I’m quite happy in my slightly shabby pedagogical bungalow.

The current pandemic has not been a leveller.  Working class and BAME citizens have been the hardest hit; either directly through contracting the virus or indirectly through effects on families and support networks.  The schools that many of our applicants attend may have excellent teachers but are generally less well resourced than those in more affluent areas.  Many students will not have had the capacity to engage in any digital learning provided towards the end of their courses in response to the pandemic.  Their teachers, looking for evidence of attitude may have judged that as apathy rather than poverty. Many of our applicants have to hold down significant part-time work while studying for their BTEC or A-levels.  If your mum has just lost her job and you are fortunate enough to still have a part-time role, your income that was once destined to pay for treats, may have become essential for covering bills.

Already disadvantaged by less well-resourced schooling in deprived areas (e.g. some 6th forms do not offer science subjects as they cannot afford it), from families that may not have the time to sit around discussing science, politics or society at dinner they have a sisyphean task to get into and then through HE. People who have not experienced the kind of poverty where your mum shouts at you for cutting the cheese too thickly, where you wear your father’s far too large cast-offs or where the potatoes you grow in your council house garden are more than a middle class affectation cannot understand this.

It is not fair to reinforce these disadvantages by reacting to the pandemic by hardwiring their economic deprivation into the flawed (as all models are) statistical algorithm that estimates what their results might have been.  We have a duty to recognise the potential of our applicants and nurture it rather than judge them by our societies failures and the gross inequalities around us.  We should not be distilling someone’s potential and future opportunities down to a 2-3 digit UCAS number or summary set of grades.

Let’s not pay too much attention to attainment levels this year.  Let’s look at the journey each applicant has made and think about what they might be able to achieve and contribute to society given sufficient support.  In fact, let’s not pay too much attention to exam results in general – they are a very narrow way to assess someone’s ability on a particular day.

Spectral responses from the dorsal organ of a juvenile Rimicaris exoculata from the TAG hydrothermal vent


Magnus L. Johnson, Peter M.J. Shelton, Peter J. Herring & Sue Gardner
First published in the BRIDGE Newsletter, Autumn, 1995 and later updated.


Previous attempts to characterise the visual capability of the dorsal organ of alvinocarid shrimps electrophysiologically have been confounded by both the damaging effects of submersible lights on the organ (see paper published after this one publication: Herring et al 1999) and the difficulty of carrying out even relatively simple electrophysiology at sea. It has been shown that, even in decapods from relatively shallow waters, light levels significantly greater than those normally experienced can result in the irreversible damage to decapod eyes (Loew, 1976; Meyer-Rochow, 1981; Nilsson & Lindstrom, 1983; Gaten, 1988). Here we report a successful attempt to record electroretinograms from a single specimen of R. exoculata.

In common with many other species of abyssal crustacea (Elofsson & Hallberg, 1977; Marshall, 1979), although they possess the remnants of ommatidial structure (Van Dover et al., 1989; M. Johnson pers.obs.) the eyes of R. exoculata lack dioptrics (Figure 1). As Land (1989) points out it is likely that such ‘naked retina’ type eyes are more than adequate for the perception of digital stimuli such as may be provided by the occasional bioluminescent flash and may even provide some sort of directionality. The resolution of such eyes will not approach that of the normal spherical superposition compound eyes found in decapods (Gaten & Shelton, 1993) since each individual photoreceptor will efficiently absorb light over a 24° solid angle (Land, 1989).
Figure 1: Schematic diagram of a standard shrimp eye and the dorsal organ of R. exoculata


In any eye, absolute sensitivity (probability of photon capture) is limited by the cross sectional area of photoreceptive pigment presented to the image (Goldsmith, 1990). In the usual spherical superposition eye, as found in pelagic and coastal shrimps, the attempt to form an image and the necessary geometry of the eye (Figure 1) limits the aperture and therefore the total cross sectional area of pigment presented. The absolute diameter of the eye is limited by obvious constraints imposed by the size of the shrimp and hydrodynamics. Within the superposition eye the thickness of the photoreceptor layer is limited by the diameter of the eye. If parallel light is to be guided to a few photoreceptors (for the purpose of image formation) the maximum outer diameter of the photoreceptive layer can be no more than around 1/2 that of the eye (Land, 1981).

In the naked retina type eye however , where all attempts at image formation have been abandoned, the constraints on the ‘aperture’ (effectively the whole eye to a perpendicular source) and area covered by the photoreceptive layer are much reduced. Van Dover et al (1989) found that R. exoculata had at least 2-7 times more visual pigment than is found in other marine crustacean eyes. If subjected to light from an antero-dorsal direction it is likely that almost the whole eye could be stimulated, rather than only a small group of photoreceptors as in species with the more usual compound eyes.

Van Dover et al. (1989) looked at the absorption spectrum of R. exoculata visual pigment and suggested that, although it peaks in the green part of the spectrum, it may have some sensitivity to far red (600-800 nm) light. Pelli & Chamberlain (1989) suggested that, theoretically, it may be possible for a shrimp with such a pigment to be responsive to small levels of 600 nm light generated as part of black body radiation given off by a hydrothermal plume. Van Dover et al (1989) assert that ‘the dominant physical features of the shrimps’ environment are plumes of water at 350°C’ and go on to suggest that these may serve as attractants to feeding areas.

The purpose of this report, and my participation in the BRAVEX ’94 cruise was to characterise the visual capability of the alvinocarid dorsal organ electrophysiologically.

Methods & Materials

In this study an attempt was made to get round the problem of blinding by the intense submersible lights using a novel design of light-tight shrimp trap . These were 15x15x30cm aluminium ‘lunch boxes’ with an entrance and light baffle at either end (Figure 2). The inside of the box was painted matt black to reduce internal reflection and traps were baited with partially decomposed and sterilised sardines (with tomato sauce) embedded in agar. Keeping the traps light tight meant that the size of the entrance holes was limited to 50mm. The knock on effect of this was to restrict water flow through the trap, limit the dispersal of the bait scent thereby reducing the capture efficiency of the trap. Also the limitations of basket space in the submersibles, logistical, navigational and topological considerations meant that the traps were not placed in optimal positions around the vent. From 5 deployments of various duration’s (2-10 days) at TAG (26°N, MAR) and Broken Spur (29°N, MAR) only two live juvenile R. exoculata were caught using this method (Figure 3). Attempts were also made to elicit responses from animals that had been captured in more conventional ways (i.e. where no attempt had been made to protect them from excess light).

Figure 2:  Light-tight shrimp trapRIM2


The animals were transferred from the trap to chilled seawater as quickly as possible and, apart from a very brief exposure to ambient laboratory light (finding and gently handling very small prawns in the dark is almost impossible!), handled under dim red light. They were dried and securely attached by the carapace with super glue to a mount on a micro-manipulator. Preparations were held in a small chamber of cool sea water so that the gills were submerged but the dorsal organ and anterior portion of the body was kept out of the water. Electrical and high frequency mechanical interference were reduced by locating the set-up in a portable Faraday cage supported on three wheel-chair inner tubes.

Figure 3: Rimicaris exoculata showing dorsal organ


Light was generated by a 75w xenon arc lamp (Oriel inc, Model 6000) and directed to the preparation via a quartz light guide after passing through a selected narrow pass band filter and neutral density wedge. Stimuli, at ten wavelengths, consisted of 0.1s bursts of isoquantal light (1.2 x 1020 photons m-2s-1) controlled by a programmable shutter supply connected to an Ealing Electronic Shutter (Model No. 22 8411). Responses were recorded via a simple platinum electrode coated in nail varnish as far as the tip (Outdoor Girl, No. 39 [Marshmallow], Max Factor) held in a Neurolog pre-amplifier headstage (NL 102G). This was mounted on a micro-manipulator and connected to a DC coupled pre-amplifier (NL 102) and AC-DC amplifier (NL 106). A small hole was made in the carapace and only the very tip of the electrode inserted into it. Responses and stimuli were recorded on a Macintosh classic II microcomputer via a MacLab/4. Preparations were sequentially subjected to stimuli of between 360-599 nm. In addition an attempt was made to elicit a response to a hand-held tungsten lamp filtered by a 600 nm wratten gel cut-on filter ( 1.8 x 1020 photons m-2s-1).


No response to light was found from any of the animals captured in conventional traps. Of the two juveniles captured in the light-tight shrimp trap, one died shortly after reaching the surface. Responses were successfully elicited from the other. The animal was tested at 10 wavelengths ranging from 350-600 nm and three experimental runs were obtained from this animal. The runs were fairly consistent each giving a response maximum at 500 nm (Figure 4). Between 350-600 nm the electrophysiological response properties of the eye are very similar to the absorption spectrum data of the visual pigment previously determined by Van Dover (1989). However when a red light from a hand held lamp was directed at the eye no response was recorded.

Figure 4 : Spectral efficiency of a juvenile R. exoculata (based on three experimental runs) compared with spectromorphometric curve of Van Dover et al .(1989)(smoothed line). Error bars are standard deviations.



In determining the spectral responses of a light sensitive organ, the ideal method involves obtaining a spectral sensitivity curve. This is especially true when there are several visual pigments. However, such a determination requires a V/Log I curve, preferably at each wavelength. In this case that was not possible because of the fragility of the specimen. A spectral efficiency curve which uses isoquantal flashes at each wavelength provides an alternative way of examining the spectral responses and is acceptable as long as there is a single visual pigment. This appears to be the case with R. exoculata.

The response pattern generated from a single juvenile specimen of R. exoculata appears to agree with the findings of Van Dover et al. (1989) and suggests that the dorsal organ has maximal sensitivity at around 500 nm. The lack of electrophysiological response of conventionally caught (i.e. not light protected) shrimp to light, and histological evidence (E.Gaten,, would appear to confirm that the dorsal organ is susceptible to irreversible damage following exposure to intense lights from the submersible.

Why the animals have a peak sensitivity at around 500 nm is not clear. Aside from black body radiation, other potential sources of light include crystalloluminescence, luminescence associated with ionizing radiation, chemiluminescence, sonoluminescence and bioluminescence (LITE Workshop Participants, 1993). Many of these sources, particularly bioluminesence (Nicol, 1978), can have emission spectra congruent with the absorption spectrum of R. exoculata. The visual pigment characteristics of this species do not appear to differ markedly from those of other deep-sea species (Nicol, 1978; Frank & Case, 1988; M. Johnson, unpublished data). This is unlikely to be because of physiological or biochemical limitations, many species have evolved photopigments light of wavelengths longer than 500nm (Bowmaker, 1990; Cronin et al., 1993).

The idea that the organ may help the shrimp to locate active vents originates from suggestions that hydrothermal ‘plumes’ were at 350°C and that these could be perceived by a photopigment with a lmax of around 500 nm or more (Van Dover et al., 1989; Pelli & Chamberlain; 1989). However recent data suggest that 1 m above the vent orifice only about 2% of the plume is actually pure vent fluid, the rest is entrained sea water (R. James, pers. com.; Chin et al., 1994). Temperatures of 350°C could only be found within and in the immediate vicinity of the orifice. The shrimps don’t seem to be attracted to the actual plumes, rather they appear to congregate on the walls of active structures and in diffuse flow areas (M. Johnson, pers. obs.; Segonzac et al., 1994) where the temperature may range from 4-40°C (A. Schultz, pers. com.). It seems unlikely that a heat sensitive dorsal organ would be useful for the location of a such areas. Generally the reflective tapeta of shrimp eyes can be used to infer the likely direction from which stimuli of interest originate (Johnson et al., in prep.; Shelton et al., 1991). In the case of R. exoculata this would appear to be from above. Many other non-hydrothermal species of crustacea possess pseudosuperposition or ‘naked retina’ type eyes and generally they point in an antero-dorsal direction (Eloffson & Hallberg, 1977; Marshall, 1979; Land, 1989). It would seem most likely that the dorsal organ of R. exoculata is adapted for the perception of light dorsal to the shrimp of around 500 nm.

Physiological, behavioural and anatomical evidence suggests that many bentho-pelagic species are very sensitive to currents and chemical scent trails. It is thought that deep-sea fish and invertebrates swim across the prevailing current until they encounter a scent trail, they then swim upstream towards the source (Marshall, 1979; Gage & Tyler,1991). If fish and scavenging amphipods can locate small prey items by scent alone, how much easier would it be to locate a hydrothermal vent site?


Many thanks to Mr D. Jones for manufacturing the ‘light-tight-shrimp-traps’ at short notice. Also to the officers and crew of the Akademic Mstislav KeldyshDr E. Gaten, Rachel James, Dr C. Van Dover, Dr Cherry Walker, Dr M. Segonzac, and the BRAVEX ’94 scientific team. M.L. Johnson was supported by a NERC/CASE studentship (No. GT4/92/5/A).


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Why should I pay for your university education?


This question has been raised often by folk that have not gone to university.  I’m answering the question because it was put to me directly over twitter by a fisherman.

The argument goes something like “If you want to spend £52 000 on getting a degree, fine but don’t ask me to pay for it as I see no benefit”.  However, I suggest that we can’t afford not to support general attendance at university for those who are capable or want to.  In my opinion we should be facilitating easy entrance to higher or further education using a variety of modes (distance learning, summer school, traditional degrees, module by modular qualification) so that people can access education throughout their lives in order to develop skills, feed their interests or change career direction.

I’d rather people didn’t have to pay fees at all – apart from the cultural benefits of having a more educated populace, the costs of university attendance are more than recouped by the taxpayer through the generally higher incomes paid folk working in graduate jobs. My arguments for accessible university with entrance based on ability run something like:

  1. Animals become adult as soon as they become reproductively active – they have all the skills they need at that point.  That used also to be true of Homo sapiens and women would have kids as early as 16 – 18, now most women have children at nearer 30 than 20.  This is because the world has become more complex and it takes longer to beome stable and financially secure and usually both partners need or want to establish careers.  Although there are other routes, for some careers a university degree gives most people a much better chance of achieving stability.
  2. If the general population can’t get into university on the basis of intellectual ability, rather than ability to pay we will forever be governed by fatuous privileged turds like Gove, Johnson and Reese-Mogg who can afford the best education.
  3. The UK is a rich nation and will prosper by developing/nurturing high-tech industries (which require graduates).  We can’t compete with developing nations in industries that require only cheap labour (unless we import that labour or drop our general living standards significantly).  Our workforce for the most part needs to be tech savvy, able to exchange and develop complex ideas and to be able to sort fact from fiction.
  4. Most of us only spend about 1/3 of our time at work.  Why shouldn’t a bus driver be trained as a philosopher, artist or naturalist so that they can contribute to our hidden economy?  University should not just be about churning out fodder for industry it should be encouraging people to think, enriching our culture and appreciating knowledge.  We are all on the “transferable skills” bandwagon but at the core of a degree is the topic, whether it be marine biology or English which is the primary motivator for academics and students.
  5. Poorly educated people vote for extremism (left or right).  An educated population will have more centrist, sensible political leanings and be able to deal with complex concepts.  Uneducated populations vote for personalities or according to simple metrics such as skin colour, tribe etc. or fall victim to simple (and often false) messages from politicians who are more interested in the power they can gain than the people they serve.
  6. Everyone should have one chance to reach for the stars.  If you go to university and do well it can be a life changing experience and make a huge difference to your future life chances – no matter what your background.  While not perfect (e.g. look at gender balance of professors – mostly male) universities are much more meritocratic than other spheres of life.

Applying to university? Advice from an admissions tutor.

I have recently taken over as the Biology admissions tutor at my institution.  It is a role I enjoy as I get to meet lots of young people keen on saving the world and proud/worried parents keen on seeing their kids do well.  It’s a bit like being the departmental goalkeeper though – if we recruit well it is obviously because of my fantastic colleagues, if we do badly it’s obviously going to be my fault.

It’s part of my role to stand up in front of an audience of potential students and parents of potential students and “sell” our courses on behalf of my colleagues and institution.  In the past this was easy.  I was part of a small Centre based on a rural campus with 8 teaching-focussed academics and 40 to 50-ish recruits a year, embarking on programmes that I had helped to develop and knew inside-out.


(The response of some academics to the brave new world of paid-for HE and what it means for universities)

Things have changed.  Now I’m part of a large School of Environmental Sciences with a much more complex (and exciting) offering to potential students.  I have to sell something I know less well in a School that is inhabited by a full range of academics including specialist teaching fellows and research professors.

The other thing that has changed is that each of our potential “clients” is looking at spending ~£27 000 in fees plus living costs in order to get a degree.  There is, rightfully, a lot of focus on what this means for graduates.  However there is a degree of pressure generated also on academics and institutions – we are, more than ever, expected to deliver.  When most of us went to university we had grants, housing benefit and could claim dole during the holidays.  We were definately not rich, but we had enough to get by and life was pretty good.  The attitude to university was, I think, different to that of today.  It was more about education and less about getting a career.  The pressure was pretty much on the student to get what they could out of university.  In effect the state paid students to get an education in return for which it was implicit that they would contribute to society – not necessarily financially.  Today students pay us to help them get a degree in return for which we owe them a decent level of service and, whatever their level of ability, need to try to make sure that they will get a return on their investment.

In my dealings with students and parents in the last year or so, two types of comment have been common. From students “I’m paying £27 000 for my degree”.  Note that the emphasis is often on the piece of paper as much as the education.  To many students the mark they achieve has become as or more important as what they learn.  And from parents comments around “I don’t care about your research profile, I want to know that you will be fully focussed on my daughter’s education” and “How likely are they to be to get a job as a marine biologist/ecologist/zoologist/biologist”.

It is more important than ever that prospective students and their parents spend time investigating the institutions that they are considering and they base their final decision on as much information as possible.  It’s also worth remembering that, should you make the wrong decision, you can usually swap universities to do a similar course at the end of your 1st year.

Ten things prospective students should consider when visiting a university:

  1. How much contact time do you get with academics during the course?
  2. Do you meet enthusiastic academics and undergraduates on open days or just paid  postgraduates?
  3. What transferrable and subject specific skills does the programme offer you?
  4. What are living costs going to be?
  5. Is there on-campus accommodation of a decent standard?
  6. Can you see student evaluations of modules offered by the department?
  7. What support is offered for SPLD?
  8. Are most academics in the department members of the Higher Education Academy?
  9. What’s the male:female staff ratio?
  10. What scholarships are there available based on need or merit?

David Davis: Beneath the avuncular mask a putrid core.

It’s not often that I feel physically sick when I hear something on Radio 4 but tonight David Davis (minister for estranging the UK from the EU) managed to do just that. Every now and again the Tory mask slips and we see that beneath the jolly and avuncular exterior lurks a putrid maggot-infested core.


It was on BBC 4’s any questions and he was attempting to smear Jeremy Corbyn as a terrorist sympathiser. So here was a senior member of the warmongering right wing Conservative party that promotes the sale of arms to extraordinarily corrupt regimes in the Middle East who themselves promote terrorism accusing Corbyn of being a terrorist sympathiser. This is the party that is content to see machine guns, sniper rifles and armoured fighting vehicles sold to states such as Syria under the classification of “crowd control”

Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly risked his reputation by talking to groups of people he doesn’t agree with in the interests of peace. He has publically stated that he would not press the button and it’s pretty clear he doesn’t support Trident – good for him. If someone does launch a nuclear attack at us we (innocent women, children, men) will be dead and I cannot for the life of me understand what would be gained by killing other innocent women, children and men in another country from where some mad despot has launched a nuclear strike. The ONLY answer is progressive nuclear disarmament.

For all his faults, and whether you like him or not, Jeremy Corbyn has been a lifelong pacifist who has sought to do good with the privilege that comes with being elected to the house of parliaments. To paraphrase the Beast of Bolsover “half of the tories are not crooks”, the rest appear to be lining their pockets by the sale of our infrastructure, water and NHS.

The Tories are trying to say that by agreeing with sentiments expressed by previous leaders of MI5 and MI6 and the foreign secretary, that involvement in overseas wars often leads to greater threats from terrorism at home, Corbyn is somehow a terrorist sympathiser.

That is, to quote another senior labour MP, “bollocks”.

Fisheries, the environment and offshore wind farms: Location, location, location.



The invisible industry

There is a general misconception that mare liberum (the Freedom of the Seas) applies in particular to fishers working in coastal waters. The common view is that access to the sea is homogenously distributed and all fishers can and do work anywhere and everywhere. So when a new structure or restriction is introduced to the coastal environment, people believe that fishermen can simply fish elsewhere. This view is not restricted to those that have a remote and often romantic view of the small boat rural fishing industry either. In a desk-based environmental impact assessment carried out prior to the installation of underground gas storage caverns on the Yorkshire coast the consultant remarked:

“No fishing takes place in this area, though one cannot discount some small scale exploitation” (a consultant cited in Hart & Johnson, 2005).

This observation was made in a region of the coast where there are numerous small inshore fishing boats and one of the biggest crab/lobster fisheries in Europe netting around £4 million a year for a community with few other industries. If the consultant had bothered to look carefully from just about any point along the coast he/she could have counted over 100 buoys, each attached to 20-30 creels on the sea bed. Fishing occurs everywhere along this coast. But it is transient and the degree of activity is not always immediately obvious, so it can be invisible to planners – unlike the physical structure of an oil rig or sewage outfall that can be marked on a chart.

Under-represented and misunderstood

Coastal, or inshore fishers work in a complex environment fraught with hazards, complex regulation, patchy distributions of their target species, exclusion zones and informal territories. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that the distance that an inshore fishing vessel can travel from their home port is limited by the speed, size and capacity of their vessels. The cumulative impacts of these factors on fishers are often poorly understood by those outside the industry. The regulators and proponents of coastal developments are comfortable in the be-suited, jargonistic and bureaucratic worlds of legal negotiation, planning legislation and public relations.

But it’s a world alien to most fishers, who as hunters earn their living by their wits, often at night and in harsh environmental conditions. They are typically highly independent individuals and naturally protective over their way of life. Unused to communicating their opinions and needs to institutions and the public, they do not always represent themselves very well in board rooms, and historically there has been no fishing equivalent of the “landed gentry” to argue their case in the upper circles of UK society. This is not an excuse to view them as “poor, backward, marginal and problematic, but as important contributors to the rural economy and potential focal points for market development in areas otherwise remote from the cash economy” (Hart & Johnson, 2005). A study of rural inshore fishers in Ireland demonstrated that one fisher at sea supports about 7 people ashore and that each fisher was worth an aggregated £34 000 per annum to the community (Meredith, 1999).

A rush to renewables

Offshore wind electricity generation is at the forefront of the UK’s drive to source 15% of energy supplies from renewables by 2020 (BERR, 2008). As renewables contributed only 1.5% to the UK’s energy demands in 2006 the scale of the task is substantial, and is leading to the designation of large areas of the sea for wind farm development. There has been a lack of precision with regard to how different stakeholders are involved in the process. The greatest challenge for developers is engaging with fishers at the local level who do not have someone in an office with the expertise, time and inclination to review the substantial documentation associated with marine development/construction projects. This is not helped by the fact that regulators such as DEFRA have generally been much more focussed on biology and economics than the most important area of science relevant to engaging and understanding stakeholders – social science (SAC Secreteriat, 2007). Early decisions on wind farm locations were made using a broad brush approach and with little stakeholder engagement. It was common in the second round of planning to see consultation only lasting 4 weeks (Gray et al, 2005). And yet location is the key issue that determines impact upon fishing communities, so these time restrictions instantly reduce the scope for useful and positive negotiations with fishers. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) undertaken once the sites are allocated become inherently biased towards justifying the location. This is not helped by the fact that EIAs are carried out by consultants under contract to the developer, who in practice may lack fisheries expertise or the necessary investigative resources.


The documentation associated with a single EIA, produced by a team of administrators, consultants and scientists.  This particular EIA was delivered to a fishermen’s association office on a pallet.

Consequently, developers face an uphill struggle trying to convince the stakeholders with local ecological knowledge of the validity of their own reports, often based on desk-studies authored by what the fishers regard as pet scientists. Consultation meetings with fishers can often be little more than last minute box ticking exercises where frustrated and poorly informed fishers vent their fury. This allows the developer to adhere only to minimum statutory requirements, citing unreasonable behaviour on the part of fishers. In fact, fishers are sometimes viewed by developers as little more than obstacles with no real rights of tenure who can be bought off, no matter whether payment of compensation is in the interests of the community and environment or not. In contrast, developers are often viewed by fishers as arrogant, devious and well connected with the institutions and regulators responsible for control of their resource (Hart & Johnson, 2005).

Environmental arguments

In an arena increasingly peppered with constraints and tensions, the development of wind farms will unavoidably result in displacement of fishing activity in different ways depending on location. At worst, livelihoods and fishing communities are at stake if fishing opportunities are removed or additional costs are incurred to divert to alternative fishing grounds that undermine the viability of fishing businesses. Developers sometimes cite declining fish stocks and the potential conservation benefits of exclosures as additional reasons to press ahead with wind farms, whether or not the local community objects. It is easy for developers and those that support wind farms to cite claims by environmental NGOs that all fished stocks are in decline. In reality, there is a recognised lack of data at appropriate scales for inshore fisheries to fully determine impact, and to be effective, restrictions on fishing activity for conservation purposes need to be set within the context of a coherent conservation strategy. Presently there is no such integration between wind farm and conservation planning processes. The initial disturbance of an area during the construction phase and ensuing noise pollution caused by pile driving are of concern with regard to fish and marine mammal populations (Hart & Johnson, 2005). The possibility that shark species may be adversely affected by electromagnetic interference is something that scientists have also been investigating. There are, nevertheless, ways that good wind farm design could mitigate impact upon fisheries. Construction activities can be planned to avoid sensitive migratory or reproductive periods and cables can be buried or shielded to limit exposure to electromagnetic fields. In the right location and with careful design, wind farms may be able to act as artificial reefs or fish aggregation devices.

Fisher safety
A wind farm array inevitably poses an increased safety risk to mariners. Fishing among turbines may seem more practical if working a limited number of lobster pots from a small boat, when compared to towing a trawl from a larger one. But there are no hard and fast conclusions on the types of fishing activity that would be compatible from a safety point of view. Sensible safety criteria must, therefore, be agreed on a case by case basis. Outside of any safety exclusion zone that is designated, it is down to skippers to assess their exposure to risk according to the local circumstances, weather conditions and fishing method employed. Some developers prefer to automatically excluding fishers from wind farms completely on safety grounds. That is understandably not something that fishers favour! However, even when fishing activity is not possible, consideration should be given to assess whether it is safe to allow passage to access fishing grounds that would otherwise be blocked. Lessons can be learned from the interactions of the fishing and oil and gas industries. Decommissioning (or recommissioning) in particular needs to be carefully considered now rather than in 20 years time. The stakes for the environment and fishing industry are likely to be higher as the ecological and spatial footprint of wind farms is so much larger. The key issues for all concerned with wind farms, which were less significant with the oil and gas industry, are location and access, and it is these that require real stakeholder involvement and proactive decision-making which takes effective account of the sensitivities and needs of fishing communities.

Originally published: Johnson, ML & Rodmell, DP (2009). Fisheries, the environment and offshore wind farms: Location, location, location. Food Ethics, 4(1): 23-24

Magnus L Johnson (Lecturer in Environmental Marine Biology, Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences, University of Hull)

Dale P Rodmell (Assistant Chief Executive, National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations)


BERR (2008) UK Renewable Energy Strategy: Consultation Document. Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform

Bratton S, Hinz S (2002) Ethical responses to commercial fisheries decline in the Republic of Ireland. Ethics and the Environment 7: 54-91

Gray T, Haggett C, Bell E (2005) Offshore wind farms and commercial fisheries in the UK: A study in stakeholder consultation. Ethics, Place & Environment 8: 127-140

Hart PJB, Johnson ML (2005) Who Owns the Sea? Workshop Proceedings., University of Hull

Meredith D (1999) The strategic importance of the fishing sector to rural communities and Ireland: a case study of the Rossaveal Region, Co. Galway. Irish Fisheries Investigations (New Series), No. 4

SAC Secreteriat (2007) Social Research in DEFRA. Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, SAC (07) 33

Is Corbyn the UK’s Trump?

The USA has Donald Trump, we have Jeremy Corbyn; it could have been so much worse, we could have ended up with Nigel Farage. As different as they are they are all a product of the same consolidation of power by neoliberal elites and corporations and a feeling of helplessness in the electorate.  The old adage “No matter who you vote for, the government always gets in” has never been so true.

In the UK the ideological lines between Conservatives (= Republicans) and Labour (= Democrats) had become completely blurred. The labour party, until recently, looked more like a soft right than a party of the people, by the people and for the people.  They have been happy to see the state assets sold off to private industry, content to take the country to war, wanted to distance themselves from workers’ unions and had created a Machiavellian top down party structure.  Margaret Thatcher was once asked, “What is your greatest achievement?”  Her reply was “Tony Blair”. Nuff said!

The ConLab parties opposed proportional representation because it would have lost them safe seats into which faithful and able champagne socialists/tories could be parachuted to take up their rightful positons in the party hierarchy. Over time the leaders on both front benches and party spokesmen (almost no women) had begun to resemble each other in terms of appearance, accent and career history that the public could no longer tell the difference.  Into this absence of a credible opposition, where two Tyrannosaurus-like dinosaurs fought over the centre ground, initially stepped Nigel Farage.  The ridiculous right – a party of racist, anti-european, bigoted middle-aged white males with generally low IQs who believe that the country is being taken over by militant Islamic invaders.  Polls suggested that people were so fed up with the same old, same old that they would even vote for UKIP for a change that might give ordinary people a voice.

Fortunately, a man and a moment have coincided and slightly shabby, quietly spoken and not public school educated, Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership contest of the Labour party. He didn’t just win, he won more votes than the rest of the “old school” Blairites and Brownites put together.  He didn’t just win the election, he increased the membership of the party purely because people wanted an opportunity to vote for him.  The young have come flocking back, people who left the party years ago when it shifted right and people like me – lost socialists (currently a member of the Green Party) are considering engaging.

Apparently winning a leadership election and increasing the membership of the party is a bad thing. Ex-front benchers and current Labour front benchers that Corbyn retained in the name of uniting the party, decry his personality, ability as a leader, friends and policies; all the while proclaiming the need for party unity (Translation: We need to get rid of Jeremy and get back to the comfortable neoliberal, very definitely not socialist, party we had before).  They are of course aided and abetted by the Conservative party who love the fact that the Labour party is split.  They must however, be a little concerned that come the next election the new brand of Corbyn politics is going to sweep them away.  Otherwise, I’m sure the right wing press, or should we just say press in general, would not be constantly and vehemently attacking everything and anything Corbyn does.

I welcome the return of socialism to UK politics and I hope to be able to vote for a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn in the next election.

Pêcheurs : les nouveaux réfugiés de la conservation

A translation of the original article “Fisherfolk: Conservation Refugees Reloaded” by Magnus Johnson.

Translation by Danièle Le Sann

Quatorze millions de personnes autochtones ont été chassées de leur terre par des activités de conservation. Les peuples autochtones ont vécu sur leurs terres pendant des générations et leur comportement a généralement été déterminé par des normes plutôt que par des lois, et ce qu’ils avaient à faire pour survivre. Les gestionnaires des aires protégées sont financés par les ONG occidentales dont le comportement est déterminé par l’économie, les lois, l’idéalisme et une science superficielle. Souvent, la pauvreté est utilisée comme un argument pour « améliorer » la vie des peuples primitifs.

Brockington signale :

« Un problème auquel sont confrontés les acteurs de la lutte contre la pauvreté est la façon dont la pauvreté est quantifiée. Le revenu personnel est la référence. Il semble impossible pour les économistes de comprendre que les gens qui vivent dans l’absence totale d’argent peuvent être beaucoup plus riches que leurs proches voisins qui vivent à la lisière de l’économie locale (et mondiale). Les peuples autochtones qui gagnent zéro dollar par jour, mais qui ont un régime alimentaire équilibré, riche en protéines, de l’eau potable, une protection contre les éléments, des médecines traditionnelles et une culture forte, ne devraient pas être placés sous ou même sur un pied d’égalité avec les personnes qui gagnent quelques dollars par semaine à des tâches subalternes, mais qui ont des durées de vie courtes, une mauvaise santé, qui sont sous-alimentés, n’ont pas accès aux médicaments, et ont une culture fruste. »

Les peuples autochtones sont généralement considérés avec dégoût dans leur pays d’origine. Considérons par exemple comment le citoyen moyen au Royaume-Uni considère les gitans, comment les Indonésiens voient les Bajo, la maltraitance des Inuits en Amérique du Nord et le mauvais traitement des Aborigènes par les Australiens. Une grande partie de cela est lié à la façon d’évaluer les biens. Les peuples autochtones qui vivent souvent en petits groupes, survivent grâce à la responsabilité sociale et la réciprocité, un système de valeurs souvent facilité par des liens familiaux étroits.

Les conservationistes aiment le mot SCIENCE. Brockington et Igoe soulignent que, généralement, les organisations revendiquent ce mot quand elles s’efforcent d’acquérir le pouvoir et le prestige, et pour supprimer toute opposition. Le public a du mal à remettre en question les « faits scientifiques » et diverses techniques sont employées par des organisations de conservation : choix sélectif des faits à utiliser, utilisation des faits non pertinents mais qui semblent impressionnants, et ignorance des vérités dérangeantes.

Les pêcheurs sont un peu comme les peuples indigènes. Ils vivent en quelque sorte en marge de la société, ils travaillent à des heures irrégulières, ont leurs propres codes sociaux, peuvent parfois être considérés comme des rustres, faisant des choses que la plupart des gens ne comprennent pas, et sont considérés par beaucoup comme des prédateurs, s’emparant des ressources communes sans payer en retour. La plupart des organismes de conservation semblent trouver commode d’ignorer le fait que les pêcheurs ont travaillé en mer pendant des centaines ou des milliers d’années (sans ajout de tonnes de pesticides, d’engrais ou utilisation d’OGM). En passant, vous pourriez aimer regarder comment un scientifique de la pêche de renommée mondiale (Ray Hilborn) compare les impacts écologiques de la pêche à ceux de l’agriculture. Les différences entre les pêcheurs et un propriétaire foncier sont les suivants :
1) Ils n’ont pas de documents disant qu’ils possèdent quelque chose.
2) Leurs ancêtres n’ont pas volé la terre des paysans par la force.
3) Ils ne sont pas surreprésentés dans la chambre des Lords.
4) Vous ne pouvez pas faire une thèse sur n’importe quoi à Oxford ou Cambridge en « Gestion maritime » parce que vos parents n’appartiennent pas à la bonne classe sociale.
5) Lorsque vous prendrez votre retraite, vous aurez un corps brisé et un bateau qui vaut moins que quand vous avez commencé.

La pêche est sans doute l’un des derniers métiers où l’on peut réussir uniquement à force de travail acharné et de ténacité.

Récemment, nous avons vu l’application de haut niveau de la pseudo-science au monde de la pêche par un cuisinier. Souhaitez-vous demander à un pêcheur comment couper les légumes ? Hugh-Feelmy-Walletall se fait d’énormes quantités d’argent par sa harangue publique contre la pêche.( Fishfight n’est pas un organisme de bienfaisance). Avec sa première campagne contre les rejets en mer, j’ai juste senti une légère irritation en voyant que quelqu’un qui coupe les légumes et cuit la viande a pu aller plus loin que les scientifiques, des halieutes qui se battent pour résoudre le problème des rejets depuis des années. Plus récemment, cependant, il a sauté dans le train en marche de la création de réserves marines. Quelque chose que les riches organisations de propagande telles que Conservation International et Greenpeace ne sont que trop heureuses de soutenir. Je recommande d’écouter Ray Hilborn pour apporter un peu d’équilibre face à ce déluge d’informations erronées grassement financées.

Le fait qu’il n’y a pratiquement aucune preuve pour étayer l’idée que les réserves fonctionnent dans des zones tempérées, en particulier sur des sédiments mous, semble avoir été complètement ignorée. Le gouvernement et les gens les plus éclairés s’accordent pour dire qu’il y a un manque total de preuves pour soutenir la mise en place de la plupart des réserves proposées et certains travaux qui suggèrent leur prédominance en tant que paradigme de l’écologie de conservation est fonction de l’idéologie plutôt que de la science à l’état pur. Les gens ordinaires aiment croire que si vous laissez faire, les choses iront mieux et le monde retournera à un état mythique d’Eden – « l’illusion du paradigme de l’équilibre ».

La conservation réelle et positive / la gestion de la ressource, nous obligent à examiner les choses plus globalement plutôt que de s’intéresser à des espèces particulières et de tracer des courbes sur des graphiques . Comme Ostrom le disait , les situations complexes exigent des solutions complexes- il n’existe pas de solution unique, pas de solution miracle. Comme Beth Fulton l’a dit lors du dernier Congrès Mondial des Pêches, « nous devons avancer avec prudence et à grand pas ».

Chasser les pêcheurs des zones où ils ont pêché pendant des générations, afin de soulager les consciences de la classe moyenne, de hippies intellectuels en sandales, n’est pas la réponse. Regardez cette carte (fournie par Marc Cohen, de Holderness Fishing Industry Group) et voyez sur quelle étendue cette zone sera interdite aux pêcheurs. En conséquence, on pêchera de plus en plus sur une zone réduite, de manière non durable, étant donné que la pêche est de plus en plus étranglée. Il n’existe aucune preuve d’un effet réserve (spillover effect) susceptible de se produire dans ce secteur. Notez comment les réserves contournent les exigences de l’industrie énergétique (nouveaux acteurs sur le terrain) mais pas celles des pêcheurs « arriérés ». Les pêcheurs sont susceptibles d’être les nouveaux réfugiés de la conservation, et si les extrémistes arrivent à leurs fins, il y aura une plus grande marginalisation, des pertes d’emploi, et la pauvreté dans les villes et les villages côtiers au Royaume Uni. Dans les plus jolies, il y aura les résidences secondaires de la classe moyenne fuyant la ville, envahies l’été, couvertes de plantes sauvages, et dont les magasins seront fermés en hiver.

Bien que mes ancêtres étaient pêcheurs et chasseurs de baleines, je ne suis pas aveuglément pro-pêche, et je ne suis pas anti-écologiste. Je suis juste anti-bêtise.

Dr Magnus Johnson est biologiste marin au « Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences ». Son texte n’engage que lui.