Over the past number of weeks, the exponential spread of the COVID 19 pandemic has affected much of the global community. Most ICES Member Countries have travel restrictions and social-distancing policies in place. Around the world, organizations and industries are, if possible, moving their working environments online. And so are we. As an international network with experts from many countries, the current situation has meant that the physical meetings planned throughout our member countries have moved online. And so far, it has been a smooth transition.
ICES President, Fritz Köster, has extended his support and gratitude to all members of the community for maintaining their level of commitment to our scientific work. “It is a challenging and difficult situation for all of us, with severe impact on all citizens and society and not least our organization. It is good to see how quickly we in ICES were able to adapt by changing working procedures, most importantly a rapid change from physical expert group meetings to online activity. This ensures that important work is organized and accomplished despite the present restrictions. I would like to thank ACOM, SCICOM, and the Secretariat as well as all participating experts for their constructive engagement, helping to keep the organization functioning also in this difficult time period". His words are echoed by our General Secretary, Anne Christine Brusendorff who adds that, “We have been working proactively across the organization to find creative solutions to continue to facilitate and support the development of ICES science and advice."
Most physical meetings that were to take place until the end of June, have moved online. ICES Secretariat is providing support to the extent possible to facilitate the move from the physical to the virtual working environment. Brusendorff also acknowledges the effort involved in maintaining this ongoing support for the organization, “I'm so proud of my colleagues in the Secretariat who have responded to the current challenges in an extremely positive and professional way, and despite working from home continue to operate as a team, with special regard for our international colleagues, some far from home, friends, and family."
Guiding each otherThere are of course challenges, but we are pooling our resources to tackle them. Chair of our Aquaculture Steering Group, Mike Rust, has crowd-sourced a guide to planning and running virtual meetings to help those less experienced adapt to their new situation.
ICES Advisory Committee (ACOM) have adopted a spring 2020 approach for the current advice season which will apply until the end of June. Meeting for nine days, the first assessment group to work under the new conditions, the Herring Assessment Working Group (HAWG) chairs Valerio Bartolino and Afra Egan proudly provided high quality assessments on fishing opportunities for herring and sprat stocks throughout the North Sea, western Baltic, and Celtic Sea ecoregion. “The abbreviated advice adopted by ICES for this year considerably facilitated the process", states Bartolino.
While there have been some connectivity issues, on the whole presentations have been clear and the challenges for groups have been less technical. Chairs are conscious of not having sessions last too long but Egan points out that, “By having a meeting remotely, there isn't much scope for additional presentations where we can discuss ongoing research on topics relevant to the group in general". This opinion is repeated throughout the groups where discussions have been limited to the bare minimum.
The lack of “breakout rooms" also means that meetings cannot be broken up into smaller blocks and according to Mattias van Opstal, co-chair of Working Group on Electrical Trawling (WGELECTRA) it can make it more difficult to keep focus. With participants not using video to preserve bandwidth, chairs feel that it is not always easy to have a perception of feelings and attention "in the room". However, the main drawback for one Working Group on Integrated Morphological and Molecular Taxonomy (WGIMT) participant is the missed collaborations, “Online doesn't allow the most valuable aspect of ICES expert groups - establishing, maintaining, and growing collaborations among researchers who share so many goals and aspirations, but it does maintain the connections and is certainly better than complete silence during times of crisis!"
A positive consequence of current restrictions for the Working Group on Integrated Morphological and Molecular Taxonomy (WGIMT) and the Working Group on Ocean Hydrography (WGOH) has been increased participation. WGIMT chairs Jasmin Renz and Elaine Fileman report, “We did in fact have 24 attendees in the end, which came as a surprise as we were only expecting 20! We had representatives from 12 countries which covered 3 time zones, with our US colleagues having to make an early start but they did not seem to mind."
ICES Science Committee (SCICOM) was one of the first meetings to make the crossover. “As soon as it became clear that travel would not be possible, we switched to an online meeting format at very short notice", notes SCICOM Chair Simon Jennings. “To get more than 40 participants working this way posed some new challenges, but thanks to the exceptional efforts of people from across the community we completed our essential business in a timely way. And it's been so encouraging to see the ongoing efforts to ensure continuity of ICES work. In April, for example, all 18 expert groups that had planned physical meetings will now meet online"
ICES Member Countries cross a number of time zones. Martha Robertson chaired Working Group on North Atlantic Salmon (WGNAS) from North America. “The meeting went well but given the time change between North America and Europe, we are meeting via ICES Webex for 3 hours per day." Working Group on Oceanic Hydrography (WGOH) had participants from 16 countries. Chairs César González-Pola and Paula Fratantoni discussed proposing new dates later in the year. “However, given the uncertainty of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and approaching deadlines for publication of the "ICES Report on Ocean Climate", we decided to host a video conference". Instead of their usual 2.5 days, they scheduled a 3 hour meeting (from 1300 to 1600 UTC identified as the best time for all time zones from Russia to the USA). González-Pola also notes that, “While many participants joined while locked down in (unprepared) homes with a variety of distractions (e.g. children, pets, family members, etc.), if we had to look for any positive, we will be much better at videoconferencing after this global emergency".
Andy Lipsky, co-chair of the newly established Working Group on Offshore Wind Development and Fisheries (WGOWDF) is currently organizing the group's first meeting. “It is a major mind shift but given that the three chairs are from three different countries with three time zones, these are everyday collaboration challenges even without a pandemic".
“This is turning out to be a very important international collaboration as so many countries, now including the US, are advancing wind energy development at the moment. But because we are tackling the same issues of better understanding fisheries and wind interactions, we have a chance to deepen our communication tools and work together through remote means as opposed to waiting for an annual gathering and I think this can strengthen our collaborations - I hope?"
Beyond the travel restrictions, groups (e.g. WGSOCIAL) are already starting to ask questions about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on marine industries and the marine environment, as well the effects on ongoing data collection and project activities that feed into the work of our expert groups.
Future updatesAny updates to ICES symposia, training courses, or meetings will be available on our website.
Martha Robertson, chair of the Working Group on North Atlantic Salmon, running the group meeting online.