Oxbridge should take applicants with the most potential, not the most appropriate backgrounds.

A few years ago I had a summer scholarship at St Johns College, Oxford University. It allowed me to concentrate on research and use the fantastic shrimp collection at the Oxford University Natural History museum. It was probably a once in a lifetime experience and something I treasure – 6 weeks of working in the dreaming spires of Oxford rather than the rather less dreamy bungalows of Scarborough Campus, Hull University. St John’s is a world apart from my day to day experience of teaching and researching in University for the last 10 years. Even though some college tutors at Oxbridge can have fairly heavy teaching loads they are working with very good students.

Many of my students in the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences, are also very good, but they tend not to be from public school, some of them even have regional accents! It is fairly unusual for us to have straight A students, but I have learned over the years that often A level results are not an infallible indication of potential or ability. Many of our students are, as I was, the first in their family to go to university. For many the simple aspiration was just to get to university, any university. Many had, for one reason or another, a disaster in their final A-level year caused by poor schooling, lack of support, illness, the need to work or just hormones. Also of course you have to remember that they are generally not at fee paying schools where kids come from an atmosphere where reading a book is the norm and families discuss current affairs around the breakfast table.

Even if you are an able student your peers are likely to be a mixed bag, some with the normal sorts of social problems non-privileged kids might have. Teachers at their school may have to invest as much in crowd control as teaching. In this atmosphere being even just a capable student can be social suicide and aspirations are likely to be more immediate than long term life goals. Expectations at schools with challenging catchments may just be to get students through in one piece and give them some sort of education. If you are a fairly smart parent, with some energy and time, you can play the system to try and give your child the advantage of a better school or move house so that you fall into the right catchment. I know parents who have bought a tumbledown second house in a good area just so that their kids can go to a better school. But many parents don’t have the desire, ability, finance or energy to help their kids get into higher education.

If by some miracle a child or young person manages to be the 1 in 10 or 20 that makes it to university from their challenged school, they are special. They have demonstrated determination, drive, an ability to challenge the social norms of their local culture to succeed and intelligence. Unfortunately I think many of those characteristics don’t translate directly into A* A-levels. These folk have also not had the advantage of coaching in getting through entrance examinations or interviews. They will not be comfortable in the atmosphere of an upper class establishment with oak panels, hundreds of years of history and received pronunciation. They will not be practiced in vocalising their thoughts. They are not expected to go to a particular college to study a particular topic. When they are interviewed by Oxbridge dons they are likely to falter, mumble, look away. They will, while being put through a completely alien process, wonder why they are putting themselves through it when everything around them is telling them they would be more comfortable at a red-brick establishment, probably studying something “practical”.

I asked some of the academics in St Johns about the poor levels of entrance of non-public school kids to Oxbridge generally and got the response that “we do try they just don’t seem to do well in our entrance system, they don’t have the confidence and can’t show us their ability. It’s a terrible shame”. At the time, I just thought “Oh well, such is life” but over the last few years I have changed my mind. These are publicly sponsored institutions that have a duty to find the best people and give them the best possible education. They should not be taking the best prepared people who naturally feel it is their right to go to Oxbridge, those who come from the correct background.

Over the years I have noticed that as you progress through the ranks of academia, at least in red-brick institutions, there is a form of natural selection and the proportion of private school educated people around you drops precipitously. This could be of course because I work in science rather than art and posh people generally don’t do science. But I like to think it is a reflection of ability, eventually, trouncing background. It makes me think though that the Oxbridge type institutions are missing the very best students. Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma) recently wrote a report for Michael Gove that suggests ways in which policy in education could be driven by research rather than whim. Entrance to university, the mechanisms of selection used and subsequent progress of students from a variety of backgrounds would to me seem to be one area ripe for investigation.

The onus should be on Oxbridge to develop their entrance systems to actively seek out the best students and traditional entrance exams and interviews may not be the best mechanism. These institutions should be reaching out to communities and going into schools to talk to teachers and students on their own terms, finding the good ones and begging them to come to their university. Peter Wilby in the Guardian suggests that Oxbridge should identify the most able students in each school and give them every possible support. He identifies interesting consequences for the attitudes of middle class parents towards schools in deprived areas. Until the ratio of public:privately educated students entering these Oxbridge type institutions matches that of the general populace they will continue to be assessing applicants on the basis of class rather than potential. To me the use of taxpayers’ money to teach a socially cleansed student population, to artificially enhance the opportunities of those that already have them in abundance is immoral.

Dr Magnus Johnson is a lecturer in Environmental Marine Biology at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences, University of Hull. His thoughts are his own.

Are discards such a bad thing?

A few years ago I remember being challenged by a motorcycle mechanic in a pub about discards. I remember feeling quite indignant that while a mechanic could see the evils of throwing good fish back into the sea again the fisheries community couldn’t do anything about it. It seems blindingly obvious that discards are a bad thing. However, I’m a born cynic and when something is too good to be true I generally think it cant be true. Same with blindingly obvious. To many it seems blindingly obvious that MCZs are THE solution to the perceived problem of overfishing. Actually that is an example of a solution that is too good to be true. To easy.

But surely discards are different? Surely the fact that they are a bad thing is an example of something that is actually true?

Maybe not.

Consider first, what are we going to do with the fish that would have been discarded. As far as I understand it at the moment, ports and markets are not geared up to deal with tonnes of poorly treated, low value fish.

Consider second – what will we use it for? Maybe we can use it as fertilizer? Is that a good use of fish? Maybe we can feed it to Salmon? Feeding fish to fish seems wrong to me. Both of these options may induce high carbon costs. If it ends up as landfill that would be more illogical than continuing to put up with bycatch where at least the waste usefully feeds back into the system. It could be used as bait by static gear fisheries which could be good for that sector as this has become an increasingly expensive aspect for them.

Consider third. What has been happening to discarded fish in the past? It is either snapped up by eager sea birds, such as gannets, snapped up by predators or sinks to the bottom where it forms part of the food chain for other wild fish and benthic organisms. In some parts of the world it has been estimated that 40% of the diets of lobster and crab comes from discarded fish. I have a feeling that a lot of birds are going to starve when discards are banned. We could also see some declines in fished species that need discards.

Consider fourth. How will the discard ban impact on the behaviour or fishermen? If technical measures such as Trawl Exclusion Devices (TEDs) don’t work in their favour, they will perhaps target species that have low levels of bycatch. Perhaps everyone will target species with low levels of bycatch – what will the knock on effects of that be?

Consider fifth. Just because something doesn’t make it onto the deck doesn’t mean it has not been impacted by fishing gear. You could design gear that was more selective but not necessarily less harmful but it would reduce “bycatch”. In order to survive the vagaries of EU management, fishermen have become adept at working around regulations and this seems like me to be an area ripe for exploitation. From a management point of view just trying to estimate bycatch has been tricky enough and that is at least visible. How will we estimate the impacts of injury to animals that are not landed?

Consider sixth. What about the effects of differential survival rates of different species? The grand banks cod fishery was a victim of this because discarded dogfish survived quite well. Eventually dogfish replaced cod. It seems likely from what the fisheries minister has said that there will be investigations into which species survive discarding and I assume fishermen will not be forced to keep these. It would be, for example, extremely daft if potters had to keep all crabs and lobsters that ended up in their creels.

I don’t know the precise answers to some of the above, but my point is that we need to think hard about what the effects of the discard ban might be and find sensible solutions.

Dr Magnus Johnson is a lecturer in Environmental Marine Biology at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences, University of Hull

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.

Fisherfolk: Conservation Refugees Reloaded

Fourteen Million indigenous people have been displaced on land by conservation activities. Indigenous peoples have lived on their lands for generations and their behaviour has generally been determined by norms rather than written laws and what they have to do to survive. Protected area managers are supported (generally) by western NGOs whos behaviour is determined by economics, written laws, idealism and superficial science. Often poverty is used as a lever to “improve” the lives of primitive peoples. Brockington points out:

“One problem facing antipoverty advocates is the way that poverty is quantified. Personal income is the benchmark. It seems impossible for economists to understand that people living in the complete absence of money can be far wealthier that their neighbours in close proximity who love at the edge of the local (and global) economy. Indigenous people earning zero dollars a day, but with balanced protein-rich diets, clean water, protection from the elements, traditional medicines and strong cultures should not be placed beneath or even on a par with people earning a few dollars a week from menial labour but who have short lifespans, bad health, undernourishment, no medicines and a brutish culture”

Indigenous peoples are generally regarded with distaste in their homelands. Consider for example how the average UK citizen views gypsies, how Indonesians view the Bajo, the mistreatment of the Inuit in North America and the shoddy treatment of Aboriginies by Australians. Much of this is likely to do with the chasm that there is between the way in which goods are valued. Indigenous peoples, often living in small groups, survive on reciprocity and social responsibility, a value system often oiled by their close family ties.

Conservationsists love the word SCIENCE. Brockington and Igoe point out that generally organisations claim this word when they are striving to acquire power and prestige and to suppress opposition. The public find it hard to question “scientific facts” and a variety of techniques are employed by conservation organisations – selective choice of facts to use, using irrelevant but impressive sounding facts and ignoring inconvenient truths.

Fishermen are a bit like indigenous folk. They live, quite literally, at the margins of society, they work irregular hours, have their own social codes, can occasionally be viewed as uncouth, do something most people don’t understand and they are viewed by many as taking something for nothing from a public resource. Most conservation organisations appear to find it convenient to ignore the fact that fisherfolk have been working the sea for hundreds or thousands of years (without adding tonnes of pesticide, fertilizer or resorting to GM crops). In passing you might like to watch a world renowned fisheries scientist (Ray Hilborn) comparing the ecological impacts of fishing v farming. The differences between them and a landowner are:

1) they don’t have a piece of paper that says they own anything,
2) their ancestors didn’t steal land from peasants by force,
3) they are not over-represented in the house of lords,
4) you can’t do a mickey mouse degree at Oxford or Cambridge in “Marine management” because your parents come from the right social class
5) when you retire you leave with a broken body and a boat that is worth less than when you started.

Fishing has been perhaps one on the last occupations where you can succeed purely by dint of hard work and tenacity.

Recently we have seen the high profile application of pseudo-science to the world of fisheries by a cook. Would you ask a fisherman how to chop vegetables? Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is making enormous amounts of money out of his public haranguing of the fishing industry (Fishfight isn’t a charity by the way). With his initial campaign against discards I just felt a mild irritation that someone who chops vegetables and heats meat was able to get further than many many marine scientists who have wrestled with the problem of discards for years. More recently however he has jumped on the Marine “Conservation” Zone bandwagon. Something that rich propaganda organisations such as Conservation International and Greenpeace are only too happy to support. I recommend listening to Ray Hilborn for a bit of balance in the face of this well financed barrage of mis-information.

The fact that there is virtually no evidence to support the idea that MCZs work in temperate areas, especially over soft sediments, seems to have been completely ignored. The government and most sensible people agree that there is a complete vacuum of evidence to support the establishment of many of the proposed MCZs and some work that suggests their dominance as a paradigm in marine conservation ecology is a function of ideology rather than hard science. Simple folk like to believe that if you leave things alone things will get better and the world will return to some halcyon state – the “Erroneous equilibrium paradigm”. Real and positive conservation/resource management requires us to look more broadly than single species or drawing lines on charts. As Ostrom said, complex situation require complex solutions – there is no single solution, no magic bullet. As Beth Fulton said at the last World Fisheries Congress, “We need to tread lightly and with a broad footstep”

Excluding fisherfolk from areas that they have fished for generations in order to salve the consciences of middle class, sandle-shod, cord-wearing intellectual hippies is not the answer. Look at the chart here (provided by Mike Cohen of Holderness Fishing Industry Group) and look at how much area could be off limits to fishermen. This area will be fished harder and unsustainably as the fishing industry is more and more squeezed. There is no evidence of any sort of spillover effect likely to occur in this region. Note how MCZs work around the requirements of the Energy Industry (new kids on the block) but not the unfashionable fish folk. Fisherfolk are likely to be the new conservation refugees and if the extremists get their way there will be further marginalisation, job losses and poverty in rural coastal towns and villages in the UK. The pretty ones will be sources of 2nd homes to the middle classes escaping from the city – packed in summer, tumbleweed and closed shops in the winter. The ugly ones will be left to rot.

Map of MCZs and Windfarms

Proposed and current fishery exclusion zones off the yorkshire coast

Although my ancestors were fishermen and whalers, I am not blindly pro-fishing and I am not anti-conservationist. I’m just anti-stupidity.

Dr Magnus Johnson is a Marine Biologist at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences. His views are his own.

Do crabs feel pain?

I was recently asked to comment of an paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology that proported to have discovered that crabs feel pain. The paper by Magee and Elwood demonstrates that if you apply a shock to a crab in a shelter it moves away and avoids returning to that location again. I’m not that impressed with the paper as you could just read it as “if you apply a potentially damaging stimulus to a crab it will move away”.

When I commented, I started with, “I’m not an expert in this area but from a brief cursory examination it looks to me that the authors have demonstrated that crabs move away from a potentially damaging stimulus, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they feel pain”

I was reported in the Guardian as saying exactly that. Fair enough you might think. However this is a classic example of a trainee journalist trying to re-write a story. He didn’t report that I went on to say:

“It’s a complicated and emotive area and personally I am less bothered by whether animals feel pain than by the intentions of the human being inflicting some sort of unpleasant stimulus on any animal. A small boy pulling the legs off a spider is something I find distasteful and as an adult consider unethical, whether the spider feels pain or not is irrelevant. What bothers me is the intent of the individual to enjoy the discomfort of another living thing – the young boy shares certain similarities to fox hunters and anglers. These ‘hunters’ enjoy watching an animal suffer – e.g. by fleeing for its life or struggling to escape from a hook. Compare and contrast this with a hunter targeting deer in the highlands with a rifle. These folk generally take pride in a quick clean kill and are devastated by the thought, if they miss, that they may have inflicted suffering on their target.”

Not quite what was reported.

I am in effect parroting a previous piece of work Eugene Balon who really made me think a few years ago about how we treat fish. I was also informed by another very reent, excellent and thoughtful paper by Rose et al which suggests that we have not yet proved that fish can feel pain. I grew up in the Shetland Isles, a place that at the time was dominated by fishing. I saw millions of fish being casually tossed onto the quayside and in my head they were like vegetables. Whether they feel pain or not just never occurred to me, they were just fish. When I went Aberdeen University to study for a Masters in Marine and Fisheries Biology, I worked in a lab where blood samples were routinely extracted from fish – the research group was primarily interested in the immune system of fish. In order to take just a small blood sample from a fish the lab needed several home office licences and people had to attend training courses where they were acquainted with the law and allowed procedures. Quite the opposite approach to fish that a fisherman might take. I considered the extremes to which labs had to go quite excessive. These fish were treated very well and minimal amounts of pain or stress were imposed on them whatever procedures were being carried out.

A few years later, I got involved in the UK Shark Tagging programme. In the field of angling and and science the law in Britain becomes completely bizarre. It is perfectly legal for a fisherman to catch a shark and leave it to asphyxiate on the deck of a boat. He or she can gut it live if they want. If you are an angler or a scientist involved in a tagging programme, where the angler (or scientist) treats the fish with extreme care, gently brings it alongside the boat, tags it with a streamer tag, gives the fish time to recover and then lets it go, technically they are breaking the law.

I stand by my feeling that whether animals feel pain or not is irrelevant. To damage or stress a living organisms for no reason other than to enjoy their struggling and suffering is like taking a hammer to a Ferrari or slashing the Mona Lisa. It is an act of pure mindless vandalism.

Magnus Johnson is a lecturer in Environmental Marine Biology at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences at the University of Hull