Summary of peer review

The Scottish Government commissioned an independent Peer Review of the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 to take place as the assessment developed during 2019 and 2020. The aim was to review the draft assessment and assess the robustness of the process undertaken to draw its conclusions. Scotland’s Seas Data and Assessment Steering Group (SSDAG) sought assurance that the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 was fit for its intended purpose, that the science, other evidence and assessment methods were robust, that the emerging key messages were fully supported by the assessment and that the assessment was well presented and accessible to its intended audiences.

Drs Stephen Malcolm and Jo Foden were appointed to carry out the critique, both having deep experience of such large-scale assessments but neither having any direct involvement with the current assessment.

The review was carried out on penultimate drafts of the indicator assessments and other assessment texts. The reviewers provided detailed feedback and this final Peer Review report to the SSDAG. The reviewers acknowledge the active support from the SSDAG in addressing the many questions that arose during the course of the Peer Review and provision of additional information where gaps were identified.

The Peer Review process did not include a follow-up review of the changes made to the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 that resulted from the Peer Review. However, the reviewers note the willingness of the SSDAG and the teams of authors to respond positively to the critique and, by way of a small sample, note improvements to the final versions.


1. Peer Review Conclusions

The Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 represents an ambitious programme of work, which has been carried out effectively and can be considered to represent the current ‘state of the art’. This is not to say that there is no room for improvement; there is, in both detail and ensuring that the information is brought together to support the overarching aim espoused in Scotland’s vision for the marine and coastal environment. The Peer Review concludes that:

  • The Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 meets the needs of the National Marine Plan (NMP) and associated legislation by providing, with few exceptions:
    • the range of information required to support the marine vision, including filling gaps that were identified by the Peer Review;
    • good quality, appropriate information on current status and trends;
    • a novel assessment of Pressures from Human Activities;
    • a supporting evidence base for Climate Change that relies on analyses of published scenarios, papers and other reports;
    • a supporting evidence base enabling an ecosystem-based approach; and
    • a supporting evidence base for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Life Under Water) and the Scottish Performance Framework.
  • The Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 provides:
    • robust scientific and other evidence, robust assessment methods and confidence in the conclusions drawn, with few exceptions;
    • Key Messages that are fully supported by the assessment, subject to improvements identified by the Peer Review.
  • The overall presentation (including Case Studies) of the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 required improvement in many areas, in particular to improve the accessibility of the assessment to a range of audiences, although there are a few excellent exceptions.
  • The Ecosystem Services theme is a useful development but should be based more definitively on the Scotland’s seas evidence base presented in the assessment.
  • Improvement was suggested to ensure:
    • greater coherence and consistency between the assessments in terms of coverage of the Scottish and Offshore Marine Regions and the time periods for analysis of trends;
    • improved connectivity between the individual components of the assessment.


2. Meets the needs of the Scottish National Marine Plan and associated legislation

Satisfies the requirements, Section 5 (4) (b) and (c), and section 11 (2) (a) (i) of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010

The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 in Section 5 (4) requires Scottish Ministers, inter alia, to (b) prepare an assessment of the condition of the Scottish marine area or, as the case may be, the Scottish marine region at the time of the plan’s preparation and (c) to prepare a summary of the significant pressures and the impact of human activity on the area or region. Section 11 of the Act gives Scottish Ministers a Duty to keep relevant matters under review including at (2) (a) (i) the physical, environmental, social, cultural and economic characteristics of the Scottish marine area and of the living resources which the area supports. A broad range of information is needed to satisfy these requirements.

This review notes that the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 has been designed to provide the broad requirement, covering evidence-based indicators for the Physical Characteristics, Clean and Safe, Healthy and Biologically Diverse and Productive themes. Each indicator provides information on status (which supports the assessment of condition) and trend (which supports, in part, the duty to keep matters under review).

The Peer Review concludes that the requirement for an assessment of condition is satisfied with a few exceptions where data are either not available or are insufficient. The trend information needed to support the duty to keep relevant matters under review is also satisfied, but there are more exceptions where the time series of data are deemed insufficient. The gaps in time series have been flagged by the authors on an individual indicator basis.

The Physical Characteristics and Ocean Acidification theme could be enhanced by inclusion of information on bathymetry and geology (including sediment and rock type distribution). The Clean and Safe theme could be improved by exploring the impacts of litter and noise. The Healthy and Biologically Diverse theme could be enhanced by formal food web and sandeel assessments.

The requirement to prepare a summary of the significant pressures on the Scottish sea area or Scottish and Offshore Marine Regions has been satisfied by a new process that directly engaged a wide range of relevant Scottish expertise. Less satisfying is the extension of the assessment to consider the impact of human activity by area or region. It is acknowledged that the building blocks are there and assessing impact may be most effective at the local or regional level. Nevertheless, the Pressure from Activities initiative is commendable.


Supports the National Marine Plan (NMP) vision

The Scottish vision for the marine environment is, ‘Clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse marine and coastal environments; managed to meet the long-term needs of nature and people’.

The Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 provides the broad range of information that is fundamental to achieving the National Marine Plan (NMP) Vision. A clear understanding of how the physical (and chemical) parameters of the marine environment are changing is necessary supporting information, particularly for assessments of Healthy and Biologically Diverse and Productive seas. While a few gaps were identified, the evidence base presented is comprehensive.


Adequately covers the subject areas / sectors (chapter headings) of the NMP

The subject areas/sectors covered by the NMP (2015) are adequately covered by the Productive theme of the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020. Indeed, the assessment goes beyond the listed subject areas to include a wider range of significant human activities and uses of the marine and coastal environment, reflecting the scope of Scotland’s Marine Atlas 2011.

The base data for the ‘marine’ economy are, by and large, derived from government reports whose scope is limited to the major sectors. The reviewers identify a need for more consistent information amongst the broader group of activities.


Contains useful and appropriate status and trend information

The Physical Characteristics assessments contain descriptions (status assessments) that are well founded on the evidence provided. Less well covered are trend assessments. The reasons for lack of trend assessment are stated or explained. This is usually due to time series observations that are not considered long enough to determine a significant trend. Given the importance of trend information as the environment changes, the knowledge gaps identified could be more specific or refer to developing plans.

The majority of the Clean and Safe Seas assessments contain appropriate status and trend assessments that are evidence-based, particularly for the eutrophication, contaminants, microbiology and algal toxin indicators and hazardous substance biological effects indicators. The trend assessment periods vary considerably between indicators, dependent on the length of time series; for some of the newer indicators, there is limited or no possibility to make a direct comparison with the previous Marine Atlas assessment. Where possible, the authors provided commentary on changes in status.

The Healthy and Biologically Diverse indicator assessments all provide useful and appropriate information about status and trends. Some of the assessments are limited by a perceived lack of data and/or monitoring programmes but useful analyses are provided based on the information that is available. The assessment of status could be improved by further consideration of appropriate benchmarks for such assessments, as reliance on trend information is not sufficient. Trend assessment periods vary somewhat between indicators.

The Productive theme assessments provide a useful description of the sectors and, where available, information about the sector’s status in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA) and numbers of people employed. For some sectors assessed, these figures are not readily available or not considered appropriate. A future assessment would benefit if these information gaps could be filled. A more consistent approach would be helpful if an ecosystem services/natural capital approach is to develop usefully. It is also clear that more attention could be paid to the social and welfare benefits of the marine environment. The approach to trend analysis, understanding variability and the trend assessment periods need to be improved and put on a more rigorous basis.

In general, a more coherent approach to the time periods over which trends are calculated across all areas of the assessment would improve the consistency and coherence of the evidence base.


Contains information focused on the statutory Scottish Marine Regions as well as the non-statutory Offshore Marine Regions

The Physical Characteristics and Ocean Acidification assessments are generally presented at the scale of the Scottish marine area, providing a useful overview. Most of the assessments attempt to provide information relevant to the Sottish Marine Regions and the Offshore Marine Regions.

The Clean and Safe Seas assessments were conducted at a variety of scales. Eutrophication indicators are generally presented at the scale of Scottish Marine Region or Offshore Marine Region and although the hazardous substance indicators assess by biogeographic regions, efforts were made to relate these to Scottish Marine Regions or Offshore Marine Regions.

The Healthy and Biologically Diverse assessments are generally presented at the scale of the Scottish Marine area. Several attempt a breakdown to the Scottish Marine Regions or Offshore Marine Regions though it is acknowledged that this may not always be appropriate.

The Productive assessments depend on geographic aggregation provided by the reports on which they are based, which tend to focus on administrative areas rather than the Scottish Marine and Offshore Regions. Most assessments attempt to relate the information to the Regions or explain why this is not possible.

Establishing a stronger focus on the different Scottish Marine and Offshore Marine Regions would better support the development of regional marine plans. The current approach is most adequate for planning at the Scottish Sea Area level and least adequate for some Regions.


Contains material to support the ‘Climate Change – Evidence Base’ statements (NMP p.9)

The NMP states, ‘In order to consider adaptation, planners need projections of how future climate may change, and estimates of the impacts these future climate scenarios may have on marine ecosystems and regions’ and indicates where such information can be found.

The Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 fulfils this need providing a dedicated Climate Change section, which relies on analysis of published scenarios, papers and other reports. In general, the Climate Change section presents a bullish view of what will happen.

The links between the evidence base presented in the theme indicator assessments and the statements in the Climate Change section describing ‘What is already happening?’ need strengthening. This would support the confidence that can be placed in the statements about what might happen in the future and make good use of the hard won information gathered for this assessment.


Contains material to support an ecosystem-based approach (NMP §3.6)

The NMP (2015) states, ‘the ecosystem approach is reflected in the adoption as strategic objectives of the 11 Descriptors of Good Environmental Status (Annex B), set out in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. These 11 Descriptors represent an attempt to identify the key aspects of ecosystem structure and function, with relevant targets and indicators being set in conjunction with neighbouring states at the broad scale of the Celtic Seas and the Greater North Sea’.

The Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 contains material that will support an ecosystem-approach but does not extend to provide an assessment of Good Environmental Status under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.


Contains material to support the SDG and the Scottish National Performance Framework, which has two active marine indicators that will be referenced in the Scottish Assessment

The Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 contains material to support actions that may contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals, principally SDG 14 Life Under Water, as well as providing direct input to the two marine indicators of the Scottish Performance Framework. The indicators are Sustainability of Fish Stocks and Clean Seas and for both there is extensive information available in this assessment.


3. Robustness of the scientific evidence and the assessment methods

There is variation in the degree of robustness of the evidence presented amongst the different themes and subjects. This is adequately described in the individual assessments and, overall, the evidence base can be considered robust.

The scientific evidence is based on clearly described monitoring or observational programmes which have good QA/QC. Some scientific assessments rely on datasets derived from peer reviewed compiled products and/or models. Most assessments provide a short description of the supporting data gathering and links and references are given to more detailed information, including references to international guidelines, as appropriate. The assessment themes covering Productive, Climate Change and Ecosystem Services rely on previously published reports or the scientific peer reviewed literature.

The Assessment Methods, as described, are appropriate to the different subjects and can be considered fit for the current purpose.

The quality and extent of the descriptions of scientific Assessment Methods varies. Some are too technical to be accessible to a wider audience (though technically speaking they are correct). For example, a few of the assessments rely on analysis of ‘anomalies’ with various more or less technical descriptions. It might be useful to develop a plain English description of such methods. Where the assessment theme depends on previously published work (e.g. Climate Change), the expert evaluation presented is well supported by references to the peer reviewed literature. In the case of the Productive theme the assessment is, by nature, a presentation of information from one or a few referenced or linked sources. The assessment of trends in the Productive theme would benefit from more rigour.

The levels of confidence in the scientific and other evidence presented and in the Assessment Methods are adequately described.

There are statements about confidence and certainty in most of the assessments. The MCCIP confidence tool has been used to support the Clean and Safe Seas and most of the Healthy and Biologically Diverse assessments, but does not appear to have been used for the Physical Characteristics, Productive and Climate Change assessments, except where included in the supporting reports. A statement about confidence is especially important when presenting ‘Forward Looks’ and ‘What is likely to happen in future’. The current approach is adequate, but improvement is possible.


4. Key messages are fully supported by the assessment

The Key Messages are generally supported by the assessments carried out. In some cases, there is important information that does not make it to the Key Message. The inclusion of more specific information would not only make the messages more interesting but would support conclusions about the overall headlines and challenges.

There are instances where the assessment can be improved or clarified, which would also improve the overall message. There is a tendency in some assessments to make very general statements in the Key Message that are not derived from the assessment. While such statements relate to the topic being assessed, they simply use up the word count unnecessarily and there are a few instances where the author clearly wants to make a point, such as how important the subject is, but that does not necessarily reflect the outcome of the assessment.

Where the individual assessment is effectively in development (e.g. Ocean Acidification, Plankton and Suspended Particulate Inorganic Matter (Turbidity)), it would be worth flagging this more clearly in the Key Message.


5. Overall presentation and accessibility

The presentation is mostly clear, though in some cases it seems too technical to be readily accessible and in other cases the narrative does not flow easily. Distinguishing the ‘wood from the trees’ can be difficult in a few cases. Whilst it is recognised that it is difficult to pitch the assessment text at a level that suits the different audiences, the adoption of a more ‘plain English’ rather than ‘technical language’ approach would enhance the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020. This applies as much to the extended sections intended for a more expert audience as it does to the main sections.

The templates used for the indicator assessments are designed to capture and present the relevant information in a coherent, standardised and accessible form. This approach works well in most cases, but it is clear that some assessments struggled to ‘fit’ the template. In this respect, the most common issues noted in the review were: assigning material to the Background and Assessment Methods sections; and including text amounting to ‘discussion’ in several different sections. If the templates are used in the future, it would be worth considering a specific ‘discussion’ section to capture this material.

The template used for the Productive theme assessments seemed like a good fit to the material intended, but there was sometimes significant variation in the approach adopted to completing the assessments and the assumed level of technical knowledge required for accessibility.

Some observations about how the scientific templates have been used, follow. The quality of the Background sections varies but few contain clear information about why the subject is being assessed. An opportunity missed to point to other components of the assessment. The Results sections vary according to the needs of the particular topic and material presented. There are some that contain information that would be more appropriate in the Background extended or the Assessment Method. There is a tendency to treat the Results extended as additional information rather than more technical/quantitative information. While some assessments do attempt to carry out the comparison between this 2020 assessment and the previous 2011 assessment, this is not always the case. The relevant information is available but is not presented explicitly and would reinforce any message from the trend analyses to confirm what has changed. The Conclusions are drawn, in the main, from the Results presented but tend to be ‘lowest common denominator’ conclusions. In several instances Conclusions contain speculation and, in some cases, additional information that is not part of the evidence presented.

It is quite a tough job to summarise this type of information and while the critique above indicates that there is scope for improvement, the authors have generally taken a reasonable approach to their subjects.

The Clean and Safe Seas assessments are generally well-suited to the indicator template. The majority of the figures and tables are clearly presented, and appropriate photographs have been selected to illustrate the indicators. The landing pages for the four Clean and Safe Seas sub-themes (Eutrophication, Hazardous Substances, Litter and Noise) were an opportunity to provide general introductions to the sub-themes and to bring together the indicators to present them in a coherent manner; an opportunity that was largely missed.

Whilst the majority of the Clean and Safe Seas assessments were scientifically robust, several had complex concepts, necessitating the use of technical and scientific language. However, such terminology was not always sufficiently explained to make the assessments accessible. Some efforts were made to have common approaches, descriptions and presentation within a sub-theme, e.g. the Contaminants, and the reviewers recommended this for other sub-themes (e.g. Eutrophication).

The Healthy and Biologically Diverse assessments are themselves quite diverse in both technical content and clarity of writing. Taken overall, they are reasonably well presented but some required extensive editing to ensure good accessibility. As expected, there were some great photographs in this theme, but the figures were often of variable clarity. The landing pages generally provide useful scene setting information.

The Productive assessments are also quite diverse in the quality of writing. Most are well written but some amount to little more than a list of relevant information. The authors clearly did not, as a rule, consider their topics as technical and often failed to explain terms used. It is recognised that the material is a bit ‘dry’, but some assessments managed to tell a good story. The Forward Look sections were not always as informative as they could be.

Making meaningful connections across the assessment themes and assessments is not as good as it could be. This probably reflects the separate authorship of the different components but begs a question as to how better interaction between authors could be arranged.


6. Pressures from Human Activities

As part of the overall assessment, a major initiative to determine the pressures and impacts of human activities on Scotland’s seas was undertaken. The process involved sequentially, understanding the human activities present in each Scottish Marine Region or Offshore Marine Region, translating those activities into a prioritised list of the most important pressures, and finally engaging a wide range of expertise across subjects and the different regions of Scotland’s seas to build consensus around the top pressures.

The process contains a suitable mix of objective (use of the Feature Activity Sensitivity Tool (FeAST)) and subjective approaches and was able to identify the relevant pressures. However, the exercise highlighted a difficulty in identifying pressure trends as the necessary data were not available. This may become critical in assessing the effectiveness of any planned management measures directed to address human activities deemed to impact a region.

The initiative by the SSDAG can be considered a success and moving in the right direction, but there is clearly more work to be done to support the further development of the NMP.


7. Climate Change

As mentioned above (see §1.6), the Climate Change section fulfils the NMP requirement for material to support the climate change evidence base. The topics covered in the Climate Change sub-sections are not assessments in the sense of the indicators in the other themes of the SMA, because they do not analyse evidence and data to assess the condition or trends. Rather, the topics appropriately summarise the findings of other studies, although this means the information does not always relate specifically to the Scottish situation.

The landing page language is accessible, and the introductory information explains some potentially complicated concepts, clearly. Some of the topics are well-written, using accessible and appropriately circumspect language about future climate change effects (Marine Mammals, Plankton, Seabirds, Stratification). Other topics are unnecessarily complicated and too technical or scientific (Coastal Habitats, Fish, and Intertidal & Continental shelf Habitats & Species). Several of the figures presented are likely to be impenetrable for a non-scientific reader with insufficient caption explanations, for example the normalised anomalies figures in the Salinity and Sea Temperature topics.

The links between the topics in the Climate Change section and the relevant indicator assessments could be strengthened to make them more robust; for example, to the indicators on temperature, stratification, sea level rise, seabirds, circulation, ocean acidification and to eutrophication. As noted earlier (see §1.6), predictions of what is likely to happen in future based on model projections are overly confident in many of the topics (e.g. Changes in Ocean Climate) and statements should probably be more qualified.


8. Ecosystem Services

The developing concepts of Ecosystem Services, providing benefits to society, and Natural Capital, are useful tools providing a perspective on human interaction with the wider environment. This perspective can usefully inform discussion about managing human activities to achieve the sustainable use of environmental assets. The concept was introduced in Scotland’s Marine Atlas (2011) and has been applied in a theme section of the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020.

The Peer Review commends the development, particularly as a way of coherently drawing the indicator-based assessments together. The Ecosystem Services section presents an assessment within the overall assessment, but there is generally limited reference to the actual evidence base presented, relying instead on references to the general literature. The Healthy and Biologically Diverse sub-theme is the best example of the developing approach, but this also needs to make better links to the evidence base.

This development is a good step in the right direction.


9. Headlines and Future Challenges *

Headlines and Future Challenges are presented in a stand-alone document together with short summaries of the sections of the assessment. It is a challenging task to summarise the large amount of information available to a relatively few points. Some further work is required to ensure that the text is accessible and that the messages are fully, and transparently, supported by the assessment itself.

The emphasis in the text is more on the challenges than the good news represented by the information and knowledge presented in the assessment. The success of much of the work should receive greater attention as this is a significant piece of work that meets the need it was set up to deliver. However, there still needs to be acknowledgement that more does need to be done in continuing the development of the underpinning methods.

The inclusion of a published section covering Lessons Learned is a useful addition that will hopefully be used to trigger further development of the assessment process.


10. Case Studies

Case Studies are presented as part of the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 to provide additional information, stories illustrating specific developments, or filling gaps identified during the preparation of the assessment.

The Case Studies were generally of good quality, well written and provided information that was not available in the formal indicator assessments. The format was dictated by the author, rather than working to a formal template and for many of the studies this allowed specific enthusiasm to shine through. Most were good to read, but some required some editorial work for either clarity or technical issues. The only real criticism was that several of the Case Studies did not have a clear message linked to the relevant sections of the overall assessment.


Dr Stephen Malcolm and Dr Jo Foden

* Subsequently changed to 'Headlines and next steps’