A limerick a week #187

On fisheries technology, herring and Tonka toys

I was sad to hear this week of the death of ‘Dave’, a former colleague. He’d enjoyed a long and productive retirement and had neatly summarised his career through a ‘Food for Thought’ article in a fisheries journal just a couple of years ago when he was in his mid seventies. I first read it shortly after its publication and although it was a very technical paper, it brought to mind some less-than-technical reminiscences. (Just skip to the end if all you want is the limerick!)

One of the more stressful parts of my work as a fisheries scientist at Aberdeen’s Marine Laboratory, was the regular meetings with our fishing industry; stressful because we so often were the harbingers of doom such was the poor state of fish stocks at the time and our prognoses were usually received poorly. Over the years we tried several ways to improve our communication with the industry and one early format was to host a day-long meeting with leaders from both the fish catching sector and the processing sector. We presented a ‘state of the stocks’ summary in the morning and a post-lunch ‘question time’ session with a panel of senior staff to respond. The panel was chaired by a former Director of the lab, Alasdair McIntyre. Those of us that were not on the panel sat in the audience to provide any specific comments if required.

As a government department, we could provide only the minimum of lunchtime hospitality and after the first such meeting, the industry decided it would fund the lunches at any future meeting. That included ‘liquid’ provisions that the industry deemed essential given how warm the Marine Lab Lecture Theatre became as the temperature rose both literally and, at times, figuratively. Thus it was after one such lunchtime that the panel was asked about uncertainties in a specific method of fish stock assessment for herring, Clupea harengus; namely, on acoustic surveys undertaken at sea.

No-one on the panel was an acoustic survey specialist, so Alasdair referred the question to Dave, sitting on the back row of the Lecture Theatre. Thus it was that the leaders of various Scottish fish producer organisation, their equivalents in the fish processing sector, and a number of Fish Team scientists, turned towards the rear, only to see Dave dozing quietly with chin on chest – he’d had a ‘good’ lunch. The circumstances were such that would have fazed most people, but after a gentle nudge from a colleague and a hastily whispered exchange, Dave, provided a model answer, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had slept through the bulk of the Q&A session.

On other occasions he used to go jogging at lunchtimes, not with the rest of us because he was conscious of being a slow and unwieldy runner, so he ran in a direction counter to ours. Being tall and well-built, almost top heavy, he also had a unique running style. He seemed to lean forward until his legs had to move in order to stop him from falling over. To watch him was to fear for him as ran on the cusp of the gravitational constant. Too little a lean forward and gravity would not prevail and there’d be no forward motion. Too great a lean forward and you were looking at a spectacular face-plant from a rolling start. Fortunately, he always got round the course in one piece, but such was his momentum and forward lean that I suspect he only managed to stop by running into a wall! I’m also pretty sure that his background as a physicist would have enabled him to define his running style mathematically. It certainly helped him understand the outcome of a road traffic accident in which he was once involved, as he explained to us that the disproportionate damage caused when going only slightly too fast was due to the dispersal of kinetic energy that increases in proportion to the square of velocity. I don’t know if that knowledge is covered in today’s ‘theory’ part of the UK driving test. If it isn’t it should be.

You may gather, then, that Dave was a big bloke and, like all large masses, when he got going he attained significant momentum. In his case it applied verbally as well as mechanically and in conversation he had a habit of jumping in with a comment (and sometimes a brain-dump!) when you were in mid-sentence. I won’t say that he talked over you, because that has the negative connotation of wanting to impose views and to deprecate any other perspectives – that would be unfair in Dave’s case because his ‘jumping in’ was merely an unconscious by-product of his enthusiasm to engage. Nevertheless, at times, he raised the ire of my then boss.

As I shared a very large room with another junior scientist, we used to host a daily tea-break that comprised the two of us, our boss and a pair of the Fish Team’s ‘good old guys’. At that time Dave was the Marine Lab’s Deputy Director and a regular, if infrequent, attendee at our tea breaks. When he came along it was often to discuss some fisheries matter that had discomfited a Minister, hit the press headlines or required an answer to a Parliamentary Question. On such occasions, Dave would jump in half way through our boss’s explanation of the matter until, one day, he decided he would not stop talking even if Dave interrupted him. And so it transpired. Our boss did not stop talking, but much to his surprise, neither did Dave and the two of them continued to talk in parallel, our boss getting evermore hot under the collar whilst Dave remained cool, calm and, once more, oblivious to what the rest of us were witnessing.

As a consequence of Dave’s relentless and indefatigable forward progress (physical or verbal), I affectionately christened him ‘Tonka’ in homage to the adverts for the Tonka toys of the day, in which nothing seemed capable of halting them in their tracks. For several years I assumed this was a nickname known only to the tea-room cabal (excepting Dave, of course). I found out just how naïve was that assumption when, some years later, my boss came back from a meeting held at the English fisheries lab in Lowestoft and told us that after being greeted by John Pope, one of the UK’s fisheries gurus, John had ask after Dave or, as he apparently put it at the time: “How’s Tonka?”!

Shortly after, and during the early to mid 1990s, the Marine Laboratory held a couple of contracts that linked us to the Instituto Nacional de Pesca in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Towards the end of the second contract, Dave and I travelled to Ecuador each to present a paper at the end-of-contract symposium. Neither of us could speak Spanish and we depended on our local rep, Deidre, to facilitate things for us. Deidre was an Irish woman married to an Ecuadorian and she very ably interpreted for me as I gave my presentation (she had already translated my paper into Spanish so the audience could take away a hard copy in their own language). But that was not Dave’s way of doing things. In his case, Deidre translated his paper into Spanish as she had done for mine, but rather than depend upon her to interpret when he gave his talk, Dave had annoted it phonetically in parts and read it aloud in the most Scottish of Spanish accents and, as with his spoken English, each sentence was punctuated somewhere with a very Scottish “ehh”. His talk went down very well and his approach to giving it was massively appreciated. I could never have done that and I was genuinely in awe of him doing so himself.

So, to return to his height. As a tall man, Dave used always to look down on most of his colleagues; literally, but not figuratively. One could say that at times he ‘loomed’. Now, as someone that is protective of my personal space, I’m not a great fan of being loomed over however much I like the other person. So I generally take a step back if I’m ever in that position, which is why I once sashayed backwards for the entire length of one of Aberdeen’s longest bars. Dave and I had started to chat at a colleague’s retirement do and when we started to speak we were standing at one end of the bar. As we talked, he loomed. As he loomed, I stepped back. As I stepped back, he stepped forward and loomed again. I think it took about ten minutes to traverse the full length of the bar. Dave remained completely unaware of the unfolding pas de deux and that was due entirely to the enthusiasm in which he engaged with you.

Former colleagues with whom I am still in touch have also commented on Dave’s enthusiasm and on his fundamental decency. He was world renowned in his field and attained a senior management position without any resort to guile or artifice and he maintained that position with a genuine interest in his staff and concern for their development and welfare. When obliged some years ago to complete a personal profile on the Marine Scotland intranet, I listed my likes, dislikes and values. For the latter, I stated that I valued decency over achievement (and I still do). Fortunately in life you sometimes come across someone that has bucketfuls of both and Dave was certainly one of them.

Here’s the limerick.

A physicist once took on a notion
To acoustically sound out the ocean,
But to count all the Clupea
It seemed, t’would appear,
To require a lifetime’s devotion.

A limerick a week #153

On Baa Baa Black Sheep and POTUS’ hissy fits…

In the early 1980s, a fisheries scientist from the then MAFF Fisheries Laboratory in Lowestoft presented a novel assessment of the size of mackerel stocks to his overseas colleagues at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s (ICES) headquarters in Copenhagen.

Although the principle behind the method was not new, it was newly applied to the mackerel stock and, in a nutshell, it required an estimate of the abundance of eggs produced during the mackerel’s spawning season in order to quantify the number of mackerel necessary to have produced them.

Although not immediately adopted, the egg production method has now been the mainstay of the ICES’ northeast Atlantic mackerel assessments for many years, with a huge effort put into the triennial mackerel egg surveys and estimation of the other biological parameters related to egg production. But it had a difficult birth.

It was rejected for use initially because it was unproven and relied on relatively few observations. When subsequent years’ data were available and some loose ends had been tied up, it was finally accepted as an appropriate assessment method for mackerel, notwithstanding what came to be known as ‘the million tonne mistake’ (see Postscript #2)!

Ironically, when originally presented, the most critical comments on the method came from the man-from-MAFF’s UK colleagues, albeit it from colleagues ‘north of the border’, who added spice to the rivalry between the senior Scottish and English scientists of that era.

As a result of the Caledonian criticism of his method, the man-from-MAFF wrote a vehement letter of complaint to the Director of the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, the late Alasdair McIntyre. In it, he wrote of his disappointment that fellow UK scientists were the most vocal critics of his work whereas other nationals were more amenable to it.

I was shown the letter many years ago and the reply (copies of both were held in the old registry of the Marine Laboratory, but I suspect the file holding them has long since been destroyed). I can’t recall the exact wording of the complaint, but it was pretty much a frustrated rant.

On receipt, Alasdair forwarded the complaint to the head of the laboratory’s Fish Team, Alan Saville (also since deceased), a herring scientist and the foremost critic of the new approach for mackerel, asking him to reply directly.

His riposte was blunt. He told the man-from-MAFF that his response to the criticism at ICES reminded him of a tantrum thrown by a toddler when its parents’ reaction to the child’s first ever rendition of Baa Baa Black Sheep did not receive the applause and approbation that he felt it deserved! Ouch!

I was reminded of this earlier this week when Donald Trump truculently called off his Presidential visit to Denmark because his plan to buy Greenland was labelled ‘absurd’ by leading Danish politicians. Trump (of all people) later framed the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s comments as ‘nasty’.

Personally, I think even a toddler would have reacted with more maturity than POTUS.

Here’s the limerick…

So POTUS told the world he’d derail
A visit to the Danes because they’ll
Not accede to his whim
(When they pricked his thin skin),
‘Cos Greenland, they said, ain’t for sale!

Postscript #1: Saville’s harsh rejoinder to the man-from-MAFF was amusingly ill-timed as it preceded publication of the DAFS Marine Laboratory ‘green’ book, Developments in Fisheries Research in Scotland published by Fishing News Books.

It must have been a delightfully retributive occasion for the man-from-MAFF who reviewed it for the ICES’ Journal du Conseil, damning it with faint, if any, praise!

Postscript #2: The million tonne mistake. Imagine, if you will, a graph that looks like a triangle and think of the area under the triangle as representing the number of eggs produced in a mackerel spawning season; that’s the egg production curve. Now imagine the same triangle with a notch taken out of it where that notch represents the egg production of about one million tonnes of mackerel.

In the early days of the mackerel egg survey, a notched curve was the only one observed and scientists were unsure whether the notch was a genuine property of seasonal egg production or an artefact due to sampling error.

Tbe conservative approach was to err on the side of caution and to accept the lower (notched) estimate of stock size albeit with caveats. Sampling in subsequent years indicated the notch to be an artefact and the retrospective view of the stock size was increased accordingly by a million tonnes.

So, who was right? The scientists for taking a cautious  approach with clearly explained reservations, or the pelagic fishing industry that christened it the million tonne mistake?

Answers on a postcard, please, to…

A limerick a week #116

On retiring after 34 years at the Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen…

I want to thank my colleagues at the Marine Laboratory for their good wishes and benevolence on my departure. Their generosity allowed me to buy an original art work that had taken my fancy at the Tolquhon Gallery’s Christmas exhibition; a work by Jim Wylie – something to bring a bit of summer into a winter’s gloom.

Calme d’été (oil on canvas)

…and here’s the limerick (a day earlier than usual):

A Cumbrian scientist called Phil
Counted fish with a consummate skill
But now, it’s transpired,
T’arl bugger’s retired
“Oh my Cod!”, he said, “Isn’t that Brill!”

Postscript: Really Making Waves

The question was, “Will you write an article about your time in the Lab for Making Waves? It can be as short or as long as you like?” Hmmm, I thought, why not? Making Waves is the Marine Scotland staff newsletter and it might be an amusing way to say ‘cheerio’ to the organisation.

Sadly, they could not use the piece that I wrote due to some slightly off-message words in the last couple of paragraphs.

I fully understand my Comms colleague’s reservations about it. After all Comms has to be on-message, even with internal communications. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that an organisation that claims to foster diversity feels it has to censor-by-omission those who are not good little functionaries within a mini-me clone-army of identikit on-message drones! (Confession: I’ve used parts of that phrase before; I rather like it.)

Anyway, you can read my article-that-never-was below…

Ave Atque Vale

As I am soon to leave the Marine Laboratory and meaningful employment, I was asked to contribute some thoughts to Making Waves about my years in the place: “It can be as short or long as you wish”, I was told. Well, they said it, not me, so, in the immortal words of the late Stanley Unwin: Are you sitting comfibold, two-square on your botty? Then I’ll begin. Once a polly tito…

The young me.

a young Cumbrian lad headed north. It seems a long time ago now, but I joined the Laboratory in early 1984. I used to tell folk that it was my ‘Orwellian’ year until Jo, my other half, pointed out that it was also the year that we were married and she’d rather I didn’t conflate that occasion with transcending into a police state. (Off topic: I also remember once (and only once!) referring to her as the wife – such was the opprobrium brought down on me by that comment that it marks the precise moment that I began to transition from a standard-issue Kendalian into the socially liberal, bit-of-a-lefty, woke pussycat that I am today. Nevertheless, it’s still a work in progress as earlier this year she was compelled to exhort “do you always have to be a typical, unreconstructed 1970s northern male?” Le mâle le plus au nord? C’est moi!)

Anyway, back on topic… due to the likelihood of some impending sea-going duties soon after I joined the Laboratory, I was obliged to tell the doctor at my Civil Service medical that I wasn’t allowed to swim due to an ear problem, and that I was also mildly red-green colour blind. He examined the offending ear and I remember his comment well: “Where are all the bits that should be in there?” So, that was diving duties off the list.

You see 74, I see 21.

He also tested my colour vision using the Ishihara colour plates. “What number do you see?” he asked. “21”, I replied.

Him: You’re kidding!
Me: Why, what do you see?
Him: 74!

At this point, the doctor ignored the rest of the medical and we spent about 30 minutes going through several of the colour plates, tracing-out whatever we could see and then trying to visualise the other’s perception of them. (A word of advice, never ask me to guide a vessel into harbour – those red and green leading lights look very alike to me!) Nevertheless, as medicals go it was a hoot and much more fun, I imagine, than the nitrile-clad digital insertion that seems to be the de rigueur medical of choice for blokes coming to the end of their working life.

So, with the medical out of the way I thought I should call the Laboratory and ask about its dress code. “Smart casual”, I was told, “sports jacket and tie, that sort of thing” and that’s how I ended up at Reception resplendent in some new and, for me, unusual attire. Auld Jimmy Grey was behind the desk and I told him I was a new start and asked to whom I should report. “Which Section?” asked Jimmy. “Pelagic” I replied. A few seconds passed then he looked on forlornly and said “Ah, tragic pelagic!”

Clearly, that was not an auspicious start, but colleagues who remember some of the Laboratory’s characters and their feuds in those days will understand Jimmy’s response. [Memo to managers: If colleagues have serious issues with each other it is not always a good idea to send them to sea together for three weeks in a confined space with cheap booze to hand.]

Anyway, after a week of being the only person in the Laboratory that wasn’t wearing jeans I resorted to my usual clobber of a pair of Levis and a fleece. A couple of years later, as Jo and I were standing at a bus stop ready to head off to our respective workplaces, she started chatting to my colleague, Isobel, who worked in the Laboratory’s office at that time. “Look at him” Jo said (herself resplendent in ‘proper’ attire) “and holes in his jeans too!” Isobel saved the day: “Oh, he’s one of the smarter ones, you should see Tony Hawkins, and he’s the Director[1]!”

In fact, Tony had just taken over as Director from Alasdair McIntyre whose retiral speech was memorable. Alasdair had talked about the different eras over which he had been associated with the Marine Laboratory

  • The immediate post-war years when staff got danger money for going to sea due to the number of mines that were still floating around;
  • The 1950s which comprised the true renaissance of fisheries research after the war;
  • The 1960s which was a decade of expansion and exciting new research;
  • The 1970s which was a period of consolidation;
  • Finally the 1980s and retrenchment.

In other words, the start of my career, my ‘good old days’, coincided with peak-Thatcher and all that implied for folk daft enough to work in the public sector in general and in science in particular. So never tell me that I view the past through rose-tinted spectacles! Just don’t!

Our science generated contract income back then just as now, but with a difference. In those days, there was contract income in accounts all over the place and there was real potential for the misuse of funds. Pretty soon, the Laboratory was told to get its act together and that all of its contract income had to be brought in-house into legal ‘suspense’ accounts.

So you can imagine my surprise when, a few months later, a cheque drawn on a Danish bank was handed to me by a senior scientist from the Danish Fisheries Institute in Charlottenlund to cover my T&S costs for attendance at an expert group at ICES HQ. Such had been the cutbacks during the 1980s that contract income was by then being used to pay for our core business activities. That payment had been authorised by my boss and when I later mentioned to him that I’d thought all contract funds were supposed to be in-house and not ‘in Denmark’, his reply was concise: “Who’s to know?”. That made it particularly amusing many years later when he was appointed to a senior post and insisted that all staff had to follow the corporate line to the letter. (He also asked my colleague, Nick, and me to do an anonymous 360° appraisal of him in which I jokingly commented that he was a ‘poacher-turned-gamekeeper’. To my delight, he blamed Nick for that!)

Returning to Tony’s tenure as Deputy Director and then as our Director, although he was not the easiest person to warm to, I owe him a great deal as it was the tasks that he set me that got me noticed. Not for him the formal bureaucracy of going through your line management to ask for something to be done. No, he just dragged you into his office and explained what he wanted. (You then did as he asked and reported on it to him, at which time you found out what he really wanted and so began over again.)

If, like me, you were only just starting out as a Scientific Officer (B1 in new money) it didn’t matter. Tony wanted to know if you would sink or swim. That is how I ended up supporting the late Roger Bailey, and later front-lining, when arguing with the RSPB over its interpretation of the Shetland sandeel fishery as a likely cause of the islands’ dramatic seabird-breeding failures of the 1980s. Roger and I had the temerity to argue that the fishery was not the cause of the seabirds’ problems, but that it was itself impacted by the same broader environmental drivers that were affecting the production of young sandeels. It got pretty brutal in the media and, in my opinion, the RSPB with its million-plus membership tried unfairly to destroy Roger’s professional reputation. Fortunately, a young Peter Wright was then contracted under consortium funding and his research backed our version of events.

At the same time as this was going on, a skipper from the Clyde was launching harpoons at basking sharks, much to the disdain of the public and conservationists alike. Tony put me on the case and it resulted in the publication that I am probably best known for, a Scottish Fisheries Information Pamphlet on the basking shark. It was damned by some at the time because it did not fully support their perception – or prejudices – about the threat the fishery posed to the basking shark population, but it was sound and has stood the test of time. It got me on Channel Four’s Fragile Earth series and the BBC2 Nature programme fronted by Michael Buerk, famous for his ‘Ethiopian famine’ reports of the 1980s, as well as on national radio.

The media interviews I faced were always hostile because I refused to countenance the views of the Marine Conservation Society. Nevertheless, I was shown to be right by David Sims’ subsequent basking shark research at the MBA’s Plymouth Laboratory. That’s all a while ago now, but recently I wrote an article about my basking shark ‘era’ for Making Waves. Unfortunately, it was spiked due to some dodgy humour at the end of the piece. I had no problem with that decision as I’d anticipated it, but, if you’re interested, you can read it here instead.

After the media-frenzy of the 1980s I then progressed into demersal fish stock assessment and fisheries advisory work where a part of this was concerned with the Laboratory’s ‘Ecuador Project’ – an institutional link with the Instituto Nacional de Pesca, Guayaquil (INP); a contract that was funded by the UK’s Overseas Development Administration. The aim of the project was to help develop the INP’s capacity as a fisheries research organisation. Consequently, our participation included experts in organisation & management, information technology and librarianship as well as fisheries scientists.

I visited the country half a dozen times and have mixed memories of it. One image that has stayed with me was of a young shoe-shine boy. He was probably eight or nine years old, and I’d seen him work his heart out over a few hours until, eventually, he had a chance to sit and quietly enjoy an ice-cream that he’d just bought. Finally, and for ten minutes, he was allowed to be a child again. It was all a bit of an eye-opener. My eyes were opened further by the sight of teenagers employed as shop-front security guards armed with shotguns. It was no coincidence that South American guidebooks considered Guayaquil to be low down the list of places for a tourist to see, although in all honesty I don’t think we ever felt threatened and we were treated most hospitably.

The INP always seemed to have a new Director when we visited and the formalities of arriving and being greeted by him (it was always a ‘him’) took an age, with us receiving a host of unctuous compliments and having to return them with interest. I once apologised to my colleague Stuart, with whom I travelled on a number of my visits to the INP, for all the bulls**t I’d had to spout. “Don’t worry”, he said, “You’re good at it”. I’m still not sure, but I think it was a compliment.

Stuart and I had always hoped to piggyback a trip to the Galapagos Islands on the back of one of our Ecuadorian forays, but by the end of a two-week trip to the INP we just wanted to get home. As foreigners, it was also just as expensive to travel to the Islands from Guayaquil as it was to visit them from the UK. We did get to visit the Isla de la Plata (the poor man’s Galapagos) just offshore from the Ecuadorian mainland where I first saw a pair of boobies and some nesting albatrosses. Not quite the Galapagos, but at least a non-birder like me had a couple of ‘ticks’ that would be the envy of many a ‘twitcher’.

Returning to my day job, I tried hard to be a science-led-but-pragmatic adviser and, from the response of the policy leads of the day and my national and international science colleagues, I succeeded and did so without compromising the Laboratory’s reputation. That period also included my tenure on the ICES Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management on which I argued strongly to close the fisheries for cod in the North Sea and to the west of Scotland. That advice certainly unleashed Hell, but it saved the stocks from commercial extirpation.

It was controversial advice and bitter medicine as far as the fishing industry was concerned (and not exactly welcomed by Ministers either), but a deluge of ‘independent’ reports later backed the science, including one from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (PMSU). In all, five such reports vindicated the science and the PMSU approach was a shining example of how such reviews should be carried out – as well as being truly independent, its authors established a ‘challenge group’ to question their approach, their methods and their conclusions; it remains the most authoritative report of its kind that I’ve ever seen.

If only the Royal Society of Edinburgh had done likewise in its subsequent review! Theirs was the sixth with which we’d had to contend after the cod closures and its commentary on our science was hugely irritating. Being good little civil servants, we weren’t allowed publicly to challenge the more egregious elements of its report and, on that occasion, such a restriction rested uneasily with me. Moreover, our then Minister was in hospital when the RSE’s report was published and, to my dismay, his deputy publicly welcomed a ‘well-researched’ report, while writing privately to the RSE to condemn its inaccuracies.

The inability to argue our case publicly coupled to that kind of disingenuous ministerial behaviour led me to throw all of my toys out of the pram and move on from fish stock assessment and advisory work. Which is how I ended up wrestling with DG MARE’s Data Collection Regulation (DCF). I’ll say nothing more about that other than if Marine Scotland wants increasingly to source contract income and to manage such contracts efficiently, then it really does need to develop a proper contract support office rather than the ad-hockery that currently exists.

Shortly after taking on responsibility for the DCF, my Group and I were ejected from the Laboratory’s Fish Team and placed in the Science Operations Programme (SciOps). SciOps was managed by Carey and populated at Group Leader level solely by blokes. We got the work done, but also had a few laughs along the way, including at Group Leader meetings that, at times, resembled an homage to the consumer and current affairs TV show, That’s Life, with Carey as Esther Rantzen surrounded by a coterie of deferential male acolytes.

After a couple of years and with the support of Carey and several others within the Programme, we initiated the SciOps Coffee Club that ran every six weeks or so, for about 12 editions. At each meeting, a couple of volunteers showed two or three short YouTube videos that illustrated something about themselves and their interests, but without them having to speak at length to the audience (we called it MeTube). It worked well and it was fun. We also included a ‘Traybake of the Month’ competition in which anyone that fancied it could try their hand at whatever comestible had been nominated for that occasion.

The winners from each event were later celebrated in The Compleat Baker, a publication of which I am proud and one that is fully illustrated by the posters that accompanied the events. I love the fact that some of the posters bear witness to my colleagues’ willingness to dress-up, or undress in the case of one, and then be photographed (in the days of Photoshop and Facebook) without any knowledge of the use to which their pictures were to be put. How trusting was that!

That leads me more generally to the work of my colleagues and the support and help that they have provided across the years. I don’t just mean my science colleagues, but also the other professionals and support staff that sustain our science. Almost without fail (but only ‘almost’!) everyone that has helped me has gone the extra mile when necessary, right through from my days as ‘the next big thing’ to my spell as an ‘assessment-jockey’ and then to me being ‘DCF supremo’ before finally ending up as a ‘jaded has-been’. MSS has many unheralded staff that carry out a lot of unheralded work. More light needs to be shone on that.

So, has it all been worth it or should I have stuck to my pre-university job as a forestry labourer in the English Lake District or my student vacation job as a snuff grinder in Kendal?

Well, “Yes” it has been worth it – mostly. I despair at times that we are more greatly valued by colleagues outside of the Scottish Government (or even outside Scotland and the rest of the UK) rather than by those within it. It wasn’t always like that and it needs more than a simple lip-service remedy to re-set it. I am also concerned by the erosion of our scientific independence. The report of the Independent Panel that was commissioned by Richard Lochhead when he was our Minister had a lot of wise words to say about that as an issue and the steps that could and should (but haven’t) been taken to address it. It needs to be revisited. Urgently.

The not-so-young me.

Finally, have I any advice to give to anyone just starting out? Of course I do, I’ve become avuncular with age! I’ve often reflected on some sagely advice that I was given by Peter Winterbottom, an official with MAFF (now DEFRA), during my first-ever EU-Norway negotiation. I’d turned to him at some point and said, “Peter, I don’t believe this”. His reply was succinct and it’s helped me greatly over the past two decades, especially the last one, so I hope it helps you too: “Phil”, he said, “sometimes the first thing you have to do is to suspend belief and the second thing you do is to suspend disbelief”.


[1] From the days of DAFS to SEERAD, the head of the Marine and Freshwater Labs was their Director; that would be the Head of Science in current parlance. (FRS had a Chief Executive).

A limerick a week #106

A rhyme for the hard of herring… 

One of the first ‘expert’ groups to which I was privy was convened in the mid-1980s to consider the sprat fisheries in the North Sea (I wasn’t one of the experts; just a junior learning the ropes).

I remember listening to a few hours of interesting and animated conversation before being asked to write-up the entire discussion.

Unfortunately, no-one had asked me beforehand to act as the meeting’s rapporteur so I hadn’t taken notes and couldn’t recall the detail. I can’t remember how my subsequent text was received by the real experts, but it was a lesson well and truly learned: always take notes juste au cas où!

That all came back to me this week when I read a friend’ s contribution to our workplace newsletter. She had written about the link between a pair of dried-up clupeids in our collection (a herring, Clupea harengus, and a sprat, Sprattus sprattus) and the notorious Edinburgh murderers and body snatchers Burke and Hare.

An Atlantic herring (top) and a European sprat. Both species were originally described by Linnaeus in 1758 and included as separate species in the genus Clupea, Sprat was later accorded its own genus, Sprattus, in 1846.

The link was the anatomist Robert Knox FRCSE who was asked by the ‘Commissioners of British White Herring Fishery’ (sic) in 1836 to examine small pelagic fish caught in the Firth of Forth and who consequently identified a mixed fishery of herring and sprat. Knox was the self-same anatomist that had previously benefitted from Burke and Hare’s murderous nocturnal forays.

The kind of observational anatomy that Knox used to separate the two species can’t have been too far removed from the methods I was taught (and used) in the mid-1980s (‘meristics and morphology’); methods far removed from the modern-day techniques of DNA sequencing and gene mapping.

Here’s the limerick:

Nowadays we have flash apparatus
To discern what the oceans throw at us,
But the anatomist Knox
Just had fish in a box
One herring and one Sprattus sprattus.

(Hint: pronounce it appa-RAH-tuss and not appa-RAY-tuss or it doesn’t work!)

Postscript: ‘White herring’ are fresh herring as opposed to ‘red herring’ that have been cured by smoking. As red herring are highly scented they can be dragged along the ground to lay a false trail to divert a hunting pack of dogs from its prey; hence the idiom ‘a red herring’ popularised by the writer William Cobett.

In a similar vein, hound trailing that originated in the English Lake District uses a rag soaked in a mix of aniseed and paraffin oil to lay a trail for the racing hounds to follow; nevertheless, I can’t see ‘aniseed trail’ catching on as idiomatically as ‘red herring’.

A limerick a week #97

Giving it the bird…

When I started out in fisheries research, one of the issues that I was involved in concerned the possible impact of the Shetland fishery for sandeel, a so-called ‘forage fish’, on the then current breeding failures of seabirds around the islands.

It was clear that a shortage of young sandeel, as food for the chicks, was to blame for their failure to fledge. Meanwhile, the fishery data strongly implied that the reason for the shortage of young sandeel was not the fishery, but natural environmental effects in the egg, larval and ‘pre-recruit’ stages of the fish.

Actually, we used a semi-annual catch at age analysis and seasonal research vessel survey indices of abundance (a form of fishery-independent catch per unit effort)

Lengthy discussions with the British Trust for Ornithology and professional marine ornithologists from academia and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology concluded this was the most credible perspective.

Unfortunately, that was not good enough for the RSPB:

So, the RSPB sought instead to destroy the professional reputation of my first boss (a true gentleman) and to damage my, ahem, fledgling career at the same time.

Long story short: later work by a consortium-funded research fellow showed that we were right; something only grudgingly accepted by the RSPB.

We then went on to develop a ground-breaking management regime for the fishery in which we provided data and annual assessments, but devolved management of the fishery to the local fisherman’s association and environmental groups. We would only intervene on management decisions if the local groups couldn’t develop a mutually acceptable plan (we never did have to intervene!).

The RSPB, of course, never ‘corrected’ itself to its million-plus members and never apologised for traducing my boss’s name and reputation or that of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association.

Slight diversion: Many years later, a policy push was instigated to compel warring aquaculture and wild-salmon angling interests to agree between themselves a management regime of some sort. It was touted by a here-today-gone-tomorrow senior policy official as a ‘first’ in Scottish fisheries management. In fact, he told a ‘porky’ because he ignored what we had achieved more than two decades earlier at Shetland (and our initiative actually worked).

(That’s the sort of behaviour that you get with greasy-pole-climbing yes-men who need to to validate themselves in the eyes of their political masters).

So, what was it that started me on this historical ‘avian and piscatorial’ polemic? It is simply that I took a childish and immature delight this week in the irony of reading that a pair of RSPB workers had killed a protected osprey chick when trying to ring it in its nest.

Here’s the limerick:

When I read it I thought “What the heck!”,
It seemed no-one had bothered to check
Which part you pick
When tagging a chick:

(“Yes”, I know the chick fell from its nest and didn’t have its neck wrung – but it’s a limerick not a news report!)

What Michael said #2

(Or more precisely: “What Sid said Michael said”).

One of the knee-jerk reactions of neo-liberals to anyone that expresses left-of-centre views is to consider them as ‘commies’ and to point out that communism didn’t work.

Of course most sensible people realise that ‘left-of-centre’ encompasses a spectrum of views that is just as wide as the spectrum of right-of-centre views. Not every conservative is a fascist and facism didn’t really work either, did it?

Which is why, once again, I reach for a quote from my favourite fishery scientist of the past, Michael Graham, a former Director of the Lowestoft fisheries research lab, this time on the distortion of political ideals by extremists.

As recalled by Sidney Holt, Graham wanted all his scientists, of whatever grade, to be called naturalists, to spend the same amount of time at sea on research vessels as each other working for the common good and not as an individuals on their own research projects, and … for everyone to be paid the same! (The pay thing wasn’t allowed – this is the hierarchical UK Civil Service of the 1940s and 50s we’re talking about).

Anyway, as also reported by Holt:

Graham came from a farming background, Quaker family in Northwest England, and had socialist tendencies – Fabian style. “Then“, he said to me, after we had been talking about Engels’ The Dialectics of Nature, “Lenin came and f***** it all up”. Until then I didn’t know that respectable middle-class intellectuals used that sort of language, and presumed he must have picked it up from the fishermen, who hardly used any other sort of language“.

(I must have picked up my occasional use of intemperate language from the same source!)

Postscript: Graham, true to his beliefs, spent his sadly short retirement helping restore deprived areas in Salford into urban green spaces. Sidney Holt tells of this and much more in an online essay entitled “Three lumps of coal“; a good read for anyone interested in the political influence of American scientists on the misdirection of generations of fishery scientists into the fruitless pursuit of fisheries’ holy grail, the so-called maximum sustainable yield.

What Michael said #1

The news that Firstborn has elected to take a module on statistics during her Masters’ year brought a smile to my face. Actually, I laughed hysterically until she pointed out that Management or I may have to help her out – it’s a long time since I studied statistics!

In fact, she may do well to ignore to anything that I say – after all, why change the habit of a lifetime! More seriously, that’s because my perspective on statistics and particularly on significance testing in classical statistics is that a lot of it seems rather arbitrary. Why should a particular outcome be considered statistically significant just because the odds of it happening by chance and chance alone are 1 in 20? Why not 1 in 19 or 1 in 21 or 1 in 50,000,000? And I’m not alone in thinking this.

As a post-graduate student at York University in the 1980s (maths, stats and computing for masochists and the innumerate), one of the highlights of the week was a pub quiz in the adjacent village of Heslington. The question master, Peter Lee, was a lecturer in the Maths and Statistics Department who later wrote a book on Bayesian statistics and commented in his Forward that he delved into the Bayesian world because he was dissatisfied with the arbitrary nature of significance testing in classical statistics. Now, I’m nowhere near numerate enough to discuss the finer points of frequentist versus Bayesian statistics, but the same underlying concern of arbitrariness struck me too.

Even within the more classical school, you can still see concerns. Modern papers with titles such as “The insignificance of significance testing“, or variants thereof, abound and exist alongside the older and more literary disclaimer of John Nelder, one of the founders of generalised linear modelling, who, in his overview of a 1971 British Ecological Society Symposium on Mathematical Models in Biology proclaimed:

Fisher’s famous paper of 1922, which quantified information almost half a century ago, may be taken as the fountainhead from which developed a flow of statistical papers, soon to become a flood. This flood, as most floods, contains flotsam much of which, unfortunately, has come to rest in many text books. Everyone will have his own pet assortment of flotsam; mine include most of the theory of significance testing, including multiple comparison tests, and non parametric statistics“.

Interestingly, Nelder was a later successor to Fisher as Director of the Statistics Department at the Rothamsted Research Station. I don’t know whether his quote deprecates Fisher’s work or the fact that followers often follow blindly without the insight into the subject that the originator had – I suspect the latter in Fisher’s case – and you certainly see that in fisheries research, my profession.

I did wonder whether the apparent post-1960s disenchantment with classical significance testing was due in part to the advent of electronic computers as a result of which more numerically intensive approaches to statistical modelling could be developed. Then I remembered a quote I once read in book first published in 1943, The Fish Gate, by Michael Graham (one of the most insightful leaders of fisheries research in the 20th century and the chap after whom the title of this post is framed). There will be more about him in future posts, but for now his concerns with statistical testing and statistical power had nothing to do with developments in computing power:

What Michael said:

In this century we have admitted this ‘Normal’ curve into all our counsels. It is of so wide an application that its professors have come to smell of priestcraft, setting up arbitrary standards by which to judge the significance of everything that we have claimed to achieve. They have real power; but it is of necromancy, as when they solve a problem by a short excursion into n-dimensional space. They ride brooms if ever man did“.

Postscript: I intentionally used the phrase ‘electronic computers’ in the penultimate paragraph above, even though it has a sort of antiquated feel to it; isn’t ‘computer’ enough? Well, no actually! At least not in the context of commenting on work from an era predating the modern age of computing. Delving into the fisheries research literature it is possible to find reference to ‘an experienced computer’ in the bible of fisheries research, Beverton and Holt’s 1957 magnum opus: ‘On the dynamics of exploited fish populations’. In this instance, the ‘computer’ is actually a living, breathing person, not a machine. So there!