It has been increasingly recognised by biologists working in coastal waters that there is a pressing need to standardise methods of analysis and move towards developing and managing a control system ensuring uniformly high quality of data. Reliance on ecological data in terms of its ability to describe quantitatively the quality of the ecosystem and any environmental impact thereon, has been increasing, and the development of Environmental Quality Standards based on biological determinands has further reinforced this need.
Standardisation of methodology has been addressed for a number of years but problems of assurance of data and analysis has only recently been traced although the problem of error was known for many years. Sources of error in biological data arise through sampling (operator error, position fixing, season, sampling method, equipment), sample processing (methodology, operator error), identification, (operator error, methodology), and interpretation (data processing). Sampling and data interpretation are clearly different from the analytical process but have a major impact on the quality of information produced and it will be important to include them in any quality control scheme.
The NMBAQC Scheme aims to improve and maintain the standard of marine biological data being generated to assess the status of marine waters in the UK and the North East Atlantic. Through the provision of quality control exercises, training exercises, workshops, and information exchange it is hoped that marine biological laboratories can share and develop expertise. The Scheme does not aim to 'police' marine biological assessment, rather to facilitate improvements in assessment. While the aim of the Scheme is to quality assure biological data it is not a laboratory accreditation scheme. Labs are strongly encouraged to sign up to appropriate accreditation schemes in addition to participation with the NMBAQC scheme. The terms of reference for NMBAQC states the scheme's mission as 'Promoting Quality Assurance for Marine Biological Monitoring'.
The scheme aims to benefit the competent monitoring authorities (e.g. EA, SEPA, NIEA, CEFAS, Marine Scotland-Science, AFBI, JNCC) as a whole by providing quality assurance for marine biological data being produced by the authorities, or data produced for the authorities by contractors or licensees. The quality assurance is based on independent selection of samples for audit. A value added part of the scheme is the detailed comparative reporting of the AQC process which along with the training exercises and workshops contributes towards development of best practice. The scheme should not be viewed as a sample auditing service for individual CMA participants, or contractors.
It is recommended that, where applicable, Competent Monitoring Authorities undertake internal AQC on at least 10% of samples. In addition to participating within the NMBAQC Scheme, the Competent Monitoring Authorities should aim to send at least 5% of samples for external AQC. External AQC can be undertaken through the scheme auditors or via another appropriate external auditor following the scheme protocols.
In order to meet the quality assurance objectives, scheme standards have been set for samples collected for the UK National Marine Monitoring Programme (NMMP). Data for the NMMP (now called CSEMP - see History of the Scheme) is submitted to the UK MERMAN database - (https://www.bodc.ac.uk/projects/data_management/uk/merman/)
Performance targets have been introduced for samples submitted within the Benthic Invertebrate and Particle Size components. Invertebrate or Particle Size samples which fail to achieve acceptable quality remain flagged along with additional associated samples from the same analytical lab. for the corresponding year. Remedial action is required for failing samples (and associated replicates), according to set guidelines and once this has been completed the sample flags can be removed. It would be appropriate to utilise similar standards for Invertebrate samples collected for other programmes such as the European Water framework Directive (WFD). It is proposed to develop AQC auditing exercises and pass/fail standards for samples submitted within the Epibiota, Macroalgae, Phytoplankton and Fish components. As the specific methodological problems within each component are quite different then the format of sample auditing exercises may vary but the underlying requirement to provide some sort of quality assessment relating to data from real samples remains the same.
For further information about the rationale and aims of the NMBAQC scheme, please see:
O'Reilly, M. (2009). The NMBAQC Scheme - Friend or Foe to the Benthic Ecologist. Porcupine Marine Natural History Society Newsletter, No.25, Winter 2008/09, 9-13.
O'Reilly, M. (2010). The NMBAQC Scheme - Setting the Record Straight. Porcupine Marine Natural History Society Newsletter, No.27, Winter 2009/10, 4pp.