And so to Trento, and the Use of Algae for Monitoring Rivers symposium. I approached with mild trepidation (see comments in “The human ecosystem of environmental management …”). The last time I attended, Diatom Jihad was just getting started, and hordes of fundamentalists were swarming over the plains of scientific reason, eliminating any apostates who dared suggest alternative methods of evaluating the condition of freshwaters. To be honest, I was probably part of that horde, certainly in the early days, though I think that the True Believers always doubted my ultimate loyalty to the Holy Books produced by Lange-Bertalot, Krammer, Witkowski and their acolytes.
I have, indeed, had my own vision on the Road to Damascus (forgive me for mixing my religious metaphors). It was, in reality, the culmination of several conversations and much thinking but it can be encapsulated by a comment made by a biologist from Wessex Water, one of the utility companies who operate sewage works in the UK. I had been part of a team working on the River Wylye in Wiltshire and we were discussing our results. She looked up and said (I am paraphrasing now): “I’m not disagreeing with what you are telling us [i.e. that the river had higher concentrations of nutrients than was ideal for the ecology]. But we need to justify the price rises that would result from improved effluent treatment, and the public don’t know what diatoms are”. She had put her finger on a very major issue: that many of us involved in applied ecology are so focused on the fine details of the ecosystems that we study, that we lose sight of the bigger picture.
I tried to emphasise this in my talk and the cartoon above follows Billy Wilder’s maxim: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you”. And, to be fair, I was not the only person who made this point. Jan Stevenson from the University of Michigan gave us a good overview of the current situation in the USA and also emphasised the need to relate the changes in diatom assemblages to ecosystem services and, if possible, to determine thresholds in responses that help to develop consensus amongst stakeholders. So perhaps the winds of change really are now blowing on both sides of the Atlantic?
Towards the end of my talk, I used the phrase “healthy streams are slippery streams”, used by Emma Rosi-Marshall of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Health in New York. She is using this phrase as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the role that benthic algae play in ecosystem health. Phil Harding, the co-author of my talk, saw this written on one of my slides and commented that one of the sampling locations that his team visit regularly in the English Midlands is called “Slippery Stones” – a beautiful site on the edge of the Peak District. Is it too fanciful to suggest that this place actually has a name that reflects the quality of the freshwater ecosystem?
“Slippery Stones”, the actual place name of a site on the upper River Derwent in Derbyshire, UK.