MSc Graduate in Focus: Phil Doherty

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Phil Doherty, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2011) and now a Post Doctoral Research Associate with the University of Exeter!

 

Hi Phil! First off, why don’t you tell us what you are up to now and how you got there?

Upon finishing my MSc I was offered a short-term contract (3 months) in Penryn as a field assistant analysing video data captured from Baited Remote Underwater Videos (BRUVs) at renewable energy testing sites. This turned into a longer contract (18 months) continuing to develop methodology and analysis of the BRUV project. During this time I was part of applying for funding with the Scottish Government to satellite track basking sharks with the aim of designating a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Scottish waters. This bid was successful and became my PhD. I completed my PhD in 2017 and worked short-term on a few ongoing projects within the wider ExeterMarine group as a research assistant before acquiring my current postdoctoral position. I have been very lucky in being given the chance to work on a wide range of projects and to be supported in roles within the research group.

It’s lovely to have you with us! What do you enjoy most about studying and working with us at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus?

The location itself is a massive draw. The campus and surrounding towns are very close to many beautiful beaches. I think the fact that the CEC is actively involved in cutting edge research is a huge plus in terms of conducting a masters within the department. This access to research groups and data makes for exciting projects from which to write your thesis. It can also provide opportunities to work on real data that may contribute to ongoing research projects on the whole. For me this was the best part of my MSc, conducting fieldwork with a NGO.

I was looking to broaden my skillset, but also be exposed to academic research. I was unsure of the exact route I wanted to take in the sector and so experience in different facets of research and research groups, NGO’s, consultancies etc. sounded like a good opportunity to find out which aspects suited me to pursue further.

The staff’s openness and willingness to engage and help throughout the course was great, it felt like they cared and wanted you to succeed. The fieldcourse to Kenya was an obvious highlight. It was great to learn about current conservation issues and how those working in the field are attempting to manage and mitigate these issues.

How did the MSc help you in your career, and do you have any advice for students looking to pursue a similar career?

It turns out research was the element I enjoyed most, and so the time to be able to conduct a thesis was the highlight of the course for me, but also the part which best set me up to pursue the next phase of my career. I was lucky enough to get a position with a NGO working on various aspects of applied marine conservation. Using a long-term dataset and ground-truthing results in the field provided me with many skills in which I would need to progress.

I chose to pursue applied marine ecology and conservation as a career as I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean and the animals living within it – especially when and where animals move to/from. I also feel the knowledge gained on species should be used to some extent to help update or inform other knowledge gaps and this is a great avenue for that.

 

Finally, Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying to any of our programmes at the University of Exeter?

I would think about what you would like to get out of obtaining a masters, and how it might shape the next move you make. Do some research, contact members of staff to enquire about ongoing research and opportunities. Treat it like a job and make the most of the expertise and experience on offer.

 

Thanks Phil!

You can see what Phil gets up to at the University of Exeter at his Profile and you can follow him on Twitter!

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

Shark Awareness Day: Plastic pollution – problematic for sharks and rays.

For Shark Awareness Day 2019 we have been chatting to a few of our elasmobranch (that’s sharks, skates and rays) researchers here the the University of Exeter! In this blog we talk to Kristian Parton one of our Masters by Research students based at our Penryn Campus. He has recently published his first research paper giving a global overview of shark and ray entanglement. Below he tells us about his research and what he has found.

Words by Kristian Parton, Masters by Research Student at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus

Numerous shark populations around the world are under-threat from a variety human impacts, the most notable of these being overexploitation and bycatch. Plastic pollution and marine debris is also an ever-growing threat to species inhabiting the marine environment, having direct impacts on fish, sea turtles and marine mammals. There is little existing scientific knowledge on the impacts of marine debris on shark and ray species. Over the last year, I led a team of researchers from the University of Exeter seeking to investigate the impacts of anthropogenic (human-made) marine debris on elasmobranch populations across the globe. Our literature review was published this week in Endangered Species Research, in which we used novel data collection from social media site “Twitter”, as well as pre-existing data in the scientific literature. We discovered that the threat of marine debris to sharks and rays is likely underreported and is without doubt of clear animal welfare concern, although it is unlikely to have wide-ranging detrimental population level effects.

We managed to identify that “ghost fishing gear” was the category of marine debris responsible for entangling the majority of elasmobranchs. Ghost fishing gear is fishing equipment that has been discarded or lost at sea, and is distributed by ocean currents and winds. Ghost gear indiscriminately catches and kills a host of marine life, including sharks and rays.  We also discovered the majority of entangled individuals were found in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, although recommend that more research should also be conducted in the Indian ocean – a known hotspot for elasmobranch biodiversity. In the scientific literature the most common entangled species were lesser spotted dogfish and spiny dogfish, two species regularly found off the coast of Cornwall. We highlight that sharks and rays who have specific habitat niches (e.g. those that inhabit the seafloor or species that occupy open ocean habitats), as well as those who display migratory movements may be at higher risk of entanglement in marine debris.

This Short-fin Mako Shark has been entangled in fishing rope which has caused scoliosis (deformation) of its spine. Image by Daniel Cartamil

By using a novel method of data collection via social media site “Twitter”, we were able to identify several different species of shark and ray that were a victim of entanglement, but weren’t found as entangled in the scientific literature. This included whale sharks, basking sharks and oceanic white-tip sharks. Twitter also highlighted additional entanglements hotspots that again weren’t displayed in the scientific literature.

Although not one of the major threats to sharks and rays, entanglement in marine debris still presents a risk to elasmobranchs, particularly from an animal welfare perspective. With further research on the topic, it could be revealed that this is occurring at far higher levels than we have reported. Social media has now become integrated into today’s society, so using it in a positive way to help reveal additional entanglement reports is a real bonus. With millions of users, the global reach of social media is unprecedented and scientists could now start to tap into the virtual databases that exist on the web.

From this research, we have set up an online entanglement report form in collaboration with the Shark Trust. This will allow citizen scientists across the globe to submit their shark and ray entanglement sightings, and will significantly help scientist further quantify this risk to ever declining elasmobranch populations.

Follow Kris on Twitter.

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

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If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!