So long, and thanks for all the fish!

This poem is my attempt to summarise my career at Aberdeen’s Marine Laboratory, and I recited it (from memory!) at my retiral presentation. Ask any old f@rt how they feel when they retire and, like old f@rts the world over, they’ll ask “where have the years gone?” and when writing this I asked myself the same question again.

It seems a mere blink of the eye since I was standing at the Lab’s reception, in front of the telephony exchange that was staffed by one of the Messengers, Jimmy Grey, and asked to whom I should report as I was a new start. Jimmy asked which section was I in and I replied ‘pelagic’ to which Jimmy responded “Ah, tragic pelagic”. Given the ‘characters’ that inhabited that section, I soon found that he was speaking the truth. There were some poisonous relationships amongst staff that didn’t get on and had spent too many days crowded together on research vessel surveys that were away at sea for three weeks at a time (the demersal fisheries section was better, but not without its ‘characters’ either). Still, I got on well with most people and found them to be helpful and genuinely supportive and I tried to reciprocate as my career developed.

(Additional reflections on my ‘working days’ can be found in the following blog pages:

Quotes that made me laugh #13
Offaly good caramel …

Giving it the bird…
HR – working hard to underwhelm you!
On retiring after 34 years at the Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen…
On art, limericks and the dead-hand of corporate bol**cks…
The Great Escape (not!)
On Baa Baa Black Sheep and POTUS’ hissy fits…
On fisheries technology, herring and Tonka toys
However vast the darkness

And now my valedictory poem…

The Lad Did Little Harm

So, I’ll tell you all the story of my time up here at the Lab
The ups and downs, the smiles and the frowns,
Aye, the right old time I’ve had.

I came in 1984, the Orwellian year you’ll have heard,
And I joined the industrial fisheries group:
Sandeel, pout and birds.
Aye, truly, it was birds I said
You heard me right y’ken,
‘Cos Arctic tern and kittiwake
Were dying young[1] an’ that’s when
The ornithologists found
They’d died from a lack of food.
The fish they needed to raise a brood,
Quite simply weren’t there.

We argued that the major factor
Was not the fishermen, but another actor
In the early life of the fish they took as prey.
But the fat controller[2] of the birdy crowd
Told all the world that we were wrong
And that we’d failed to see that fish were scarce
Because of – well – fishing all along.

But we were right it was finally shown,
Although not before a myth had grown
That scientists in government employ
Were merely pawns that could not deploy
An independent mind in their travails.
Well, it wasn’t true then, but maybe now prevails
(Or at least I think in parts it does[3]).

So who else cares?
Who’s to be our noble heirs?
Who’s Rabbie’s “Man o’ independent mind,
That looks and laughs at all that[4]” kind
Of sophistry and weasel words
That spout from some of the policy nerds?
Some! A few I beg to venture,
So young ‘uns listening don’t indenture
Yourselves to others’ political games
Just make sure that your science reigns
Above all else[5].

Where was I now?
Oh, I remember!
Seabirds dying, but that’s not all.
A guy out west had taken aim
With a harpoon gun,
And his chance to claim
A place upon the list of names
Of folk who’d fished for basking sharks[6]
In a fishery whose history harks
Back to Gavin Maxwell[7].

No “Ring of Bright Water
Around the slaughter
Of those charismatic Selachimorpha,
But a right old row
That, you know, somehow
Enveloped me in its midst.
It got me on the tele (lots! And the radio),
And it got me on the list
Of rapporteurs that refused to bow
To misrepresented facts and that was how
I made my name.
It was the fifteen minutes of media fame
That Warhol said we’d have.
(Except it went on a bit longer than that!)

But things progress and so this testament
Now moves on to stock assessment.
Fish stock assessment of the demersal kind
And the start of a long and tortuous grind
Of crunching numbers so as to find
Some sagely words of wisdom.

Also known as Scientific Advice!

Well! The Holy Grail of fisheries management
Was viewed by the industry as merely flatulent
Emissions from the sphincters of the world.
So we worked really hard to explain the fact
That what we said was no simple act of fancy.
It wasn’t priestcraft or necromancy[8]
That led to our conclusion.
No confusion or illusion, but simply an infusion
Of scientific method, facts and data.
And for cod and haddock … whiting … saithe
I think it’s pretty safe to say: “We did okay”.
The most uncertain part was the catch projection
(Now, that’s where we forecast our perception
Of just how many fish it’s going to be safe to take).
But the views of scientists and the fishing sector
Often diverge and rarely reflect a
Common or consensual view of the state of play.
So there was many a fierce argument
Whose ends, I’d say, were foolish.
For they went and on until all doubt had gone,
… because so had most of the fish[9].

But our perspective was never perfect,
And we had doubts ourselves that simply reflect
The inexactitude of what we could achieve.
So how did management take account
Of uncertain science and conflicting aims?
How did it avoid the sort of games
That politicians always seem to wish to play?
And how do you factor the kind of data
That science gathers, but are condemned later
By an industry that has a great big axe to grind?

Well, we called it the Precautionary Approach.
And, as biologists, we sought to encroach
On matters that were purely philosophical.
Because we took the view that it was simply better
To be approximately right and not to let a
Critic tell us we were precisely wrong[10].

So far, so good. But a defining moment
Was the advice to close the fisheries for cod.
Now, I’ve never actually been deified,
But the industry shouted, yelled and cried
Out loud that I acted like I thought that I was God.
And though we saved the North Sea population[11]
From the risk of commercial extirpation
It came at a price that cost a bit to pay.
‘Cos in the years thereafter, we faced a raft o’
Inquiries whether we had f****d it up:

The North Sea Commission found no real omission!
The House of Lords thought we’d struck some chords.
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution
Added more with its own solution:
Meaningful MPAs!
Our very own Quinquennial Review
Added rather little new.
But the Prime Minister’s inquest was by so very far the best
And these five reviews all said that we’d done right.

Until we get to Scotland…

The Royal Society of Edinburgh!
That pantheon of our intellectual elite
Came out with something that was just a wee bit different.
And its description of fisheries stock assessment
Left us sitting in stunned bewilderment
Was this really the best that those ‘professors’ could do?
Because in my mind it left no doubt;
It was just another example of Edin-buggering about[12]!

And our Minister’s response was disingenuous.
He certainly didn’t make a strenuous
Effort to put right the wrong that had come our way[13].
And it made me angry, because it swept away
The authority that we’d used to sway
The opinion of the public and our peers.
So, to show that I really did give a damn,
I threw all of my toys from out the pram
And left the world in which I’d worked so long.

It’s loss, not mine!

So, for the last few years I’ve been able to state a
New-found interest in the world of data
And can tell you that, at times, it can be rather interesting!
But nothing is free, and the bureaucracy
Of the European data framework
Has driven me well and truly round the bend.
And I’ve had more than enough of autocracy,
Not from Europe (or locally!),
But from those officials that haven’t a clue how science works[14].
And it’s no use looking for sentiment
In the employment world today.
We’re all (well, you’re all) just throwaway parts of a big machine
Or, as the Rubaiyat would say:
For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a magic shadow-show
Play’d in a box whose candle is the sun,
Round which we phantom figures come and go[15]”.

Well, now’s my turn and this phantom leaves
(frayed and worn, perhaps!).
But I shan’t accentuate what I’ve found troubling,
So I’ll … I’ll just call it a “Conscious Uncoupling[16]
And recognise that it’s time for me to go.
And I’ll wake up on the morrow’s morn
Without any work to contemplate.
A chance to feast … on Tiffin at Dawn[17]
And as a friend once said: “I cannot wait”!

The ambition to change the world may have dimmed,
But there’s solace and some balm
In the epitaph to my career:
“Aye. The lad … did little harm[18]”!




[1] This references the widespread bird breeding failures at Shetland in the 1980s. The stock assessments of the prey species (sandeel) indicated that so-called ‘recruitment failure’ had occurred when the spawning stock was high, a strong indication that the fishery was not to blame for the dearth of young sandeel as food for young birds. Eventually work by Peter Wright demonstrated that it was broader environmental factors that had caused the problems. Before that, the RSPB had thrown everything at us to try and prove us wrong and tried to wreck our professional reputation. Grudgingly, it subsequently accepted Peter’s research (it really had no option), but never retracted any of its anti-Lab propaganda or spelt out the reality of the events to its membership or governing body. [Return]

[2] ‘Fat Controller’ was a nickname seemingly given to an adipose scientist employed by the RSPB. It was allegedly couched unaffectionately by those that had worked with him at some time or other. [Return]

[3] This is with reference to my view of the diminishing independence of science at the Marine Laboratory since the inception of Marine Scotland, resulting from various policy officials’ insidious treatment of science and scientists (in my opinion in the hope of securing advice that is more congenial to the direction of policy travel). [Return]

[4] Taken from Burns’ song: “Is There For Honest Poverty” (aka “A Man’s A Man For A’ That) [Return]

[5] This reference to ‘youth’ mirrors that of Michael Graham and his comment in his book: “The Fish Gate” (1943) that: “In a research staff the youngest member is, of course, ultimately the most important, because his (sic) ideas will have the longest run of any”. [Return]

[6] This relates to Howard McCrindle’s resurrection of a harpoon fishery for basking sharks off the west coast of Scotland in the 1980s. The Marine Conservation Society opposed it strongly and lost a great deal of kudos over its misrepresentation of historical and current data, but not before it had been given a really soft ride by the media and documentary film-makers that had decided a priori that only government scientists (me!) were untrustworthy. I managed to turn it around and put the whole discussion on a firmer, factual basis. Under the so-called precautionary approach to fisheries management this fishery would have never been allowed and even in the 1980s it was distasteful to the public at large, but setting all that aside it’s unlikely to have caused serious risk to the basking shark population in the northeast Atlantic. I was interviewed several times for both TV and radio; usually they were “hostile” interviews, but through them I managed to demonstrate to the powers that be that I could handle sensitive issues reasonably well without comprising on scientific integrity. [Return]

[7] Maxwell was neither the first nor most successful of the post-war basking shark fishermen (actually, he failed hopelessly as did the others), but he remains the best known despite the others also having written books of their exploits (Maxwell: Harpoon At A Venture (1952), O’Connor: Shark-O! (1953), Watkins: The Sea My Hunting Ground (1958), Geddes: Hebridean Sharker (1960). [Return]

[8] This is another reference to Michael Graham’s 1943 book: “The Fish Gate”. In it, he viewed the arbitrary setting of ‘significance’ levels in the (then) developing field of statistics as “necromancy”, commenting on statisticians that “its professors have come to smell of priestcraft. … They ride brooms if ever man did!”. [Return]

[9] This draws from the late John Gulland’s quote that fisheries management is characterised by an “interminable debate about the condition of fish until all doubt is removed”. It is a quote that was originally cited as a ‘personal communication’ to the authors of an article in a minor periodical. Interestingly, this ‘pers comm’ has since been misquoted in the peer-reviewed literature as: “Fishery management is an endless argument about how many fish there are in the sea until all doubt has been removed – but so have all the fish”. (I bought one of Gulland’s books on fish stock assessment as a reference to cram for my Marine Laboratory job interview way back in 1983; it wasn’t an accessible read!). [Return]

[10] Apparently the first published version of the aphorism that these lines are based on was by Carveth Read in “Logic: deductive and inductive”, stating that: “It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong”. Graham (who else) also had views on the merits or otherwise of demanding increasingly ‘exact’ science by characterising such demands thus: “for a less marked phenonemon more exact observations would be required, but when the house is on fire even a slightly inaccurate thermometer will show well enough that it is too hot” (The Fish Gate, yet again). In the same book he also cautions against the arrogance sometimes seen in science and coined the greatest single quote in fisheries literature, a warning to all, that: “The trail of fisheries science is strewn with the opinions of those who, while partly right, were wholly wrong”. [Return]

[11] Some literary licence is taken here as there is no North Sea ‘population’, but, instead, a number of population sub-units. [Return]

[12] This phrase comes from Robbie Coltrane who undermined Saatchi & Saatchi’s strapline for Glasgow’s year as the 1990 European City of Culture (“There’s a lot of Glasgowing on”) by drunkenly reflecting whether events in the country’s capital could be described as: “There’s a lot of Edin-buggering about”. [Return]

[13] The Minister was actually recovering from a heart bypass operation, but his deputy publicly welcomed “this well researched report” whilst at the same time requiring his senior official to write privately to the Royal Society of Edinburgh to tell them that such poorly researched reports could not be defended publicly in future. FRS (as was) did not publicly challenge the inaccurate or misleading elements of the report, so, due to the ministerial disingenuity and the FRS’ impotency, I walked away from its Fisheries Adviser post. [Return]

[14] I commented in writing to one of Marine Scotland’s previous Directors and at length to its former Head of Science on issues relating to the independence of science in Government and also had my comments passed to the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientist. Similar comments formed the basis of my intervention when our then Director General visited Aberdeen, but it still appears to me that officials think they have ownership of what our science should conclude. [Return]

[15] Verse 46 from FitzGerald’s translation of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”; an absolute load of guff, but with three or four verses that are worth memorising so as to appear erudite! [Return]

[16] The creative impulse to include this phrase was inspired by Colin Firth’s p**s-take of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s self-indulgent proclamation of separation (Firth pulled out of his voiceover rôle in the film Paddington as he felt his voice didn’t fit the character; he announced his decision proclaiming that he and Paddington had ‘consciously uncoupled’. [Return]

[17] This refers to the de facto motto of the former Science Operations Coffee Club. When I challenged my boss, to a bake-off with tiffin as the traybake of choice, a friend quipped “Tiffin at dawn. I can’t wait”. I suspect she had not fully appreciated the “Carry On” connotations of her phrase! [Return]

[18] I was once struck by the hope of the late actor Paul Eddington (a quaker) that his epitaph would read: “He did little harm” Not exceptionally ambitious perhaps, but good enough for me. (An alternative that I quite like comes from Terry Collier, one of UK TV’s Likely Lads, who professed that his epitaph would be something like: “Came into this world knowing nothing and died 80 years later none the bloody wiser!”). [Return]