Nurse shark and bait cannister

Research Insights: Kristian Parton – ‘Opportunistic camera surveys provide insight into discreet foraging behaviours in nurse sharks’

University of Exeter research associate Kristian Parton recently published a paper investigating the variety of foraging behaviours exhibited by nurse sharks in The Turks and Caicos Islands. Read on as we hear from him about this exciting research:

Kristian Parton – Research Associate, University of Exeter

 

Hi Kristian, thank you for joining me. Why don’t we start with a little about yourself and your work?

Hi, my name is Kristian, and I am a research associate at the University of Exeter. I studied my undergraduate degree here back in 2014 in Zoology and then went on to study my Masters by Research, looking at the impact of plastic pollution on sharks. Since then, I’ve been doing bits of research on sharks with various companies, which leads on to this current research with a company called Beneath the Waves, a shark NGO over in the United States.

Brilliant. So tell us, what led to your new paper “Opportunistic camera surveys provide insight into discrete foraging behaviours in nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum).”?

Over the lockdown in 2020, whilst like most of us I couldn’t get out anywhere, Beneath the Waves were in the Turks and Caicos Islands dropping baited remote underwater video systems in an attempt to look at the biodiversity of sharks around the islands. There’s not that much research that’s been done in the Turks and Caicos on sharks and rays, so Beneath the Waves were using these BRUVS to see what species were out there. For those of you who are new to BRUVS, they stand for Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems, and essentially, they are rigs which are dropped to the seafloor with a camera attached, plus a pole with a bait cannister on it. That bait will then lure in any marine predators like sharks and rays, which are viewed on the camera. Usually, they are used to study abundance and distribution of different species in an area.

As part of my work for Beneath the Waves, I was analysing the BRUVS footage. This involved going through and identifying the various shark and ray species which were coming onto the cameras. As I was looking through the footage, I started to notice the nurse sharks were doing something slightly strange and were behaving differently around the bait cannister to the other sharks that were featuring on the BRUVS, like the Caribbean reef sharks.

Whilst most of the other shark species would just hit the bait cage quite hard and pull it around, the nurse sharks would spend far longer, approaching the bait from different angles and positions. I started posing a few questions and went back to the team at Beneath the Waves. They’d also seen a clip of a nurse shark that looked like it was using its pectoral fins, bending them and arching them, to almost ‘walk’ on the seafloor around this BRUV. So, I started looking at more of the videos back-to-back, and we saw some patterns developing. These nurse sharks were all doing similar behaviours on the BRUVs. And so this paper was an attempt to classify those different behaviours.

Nurse shark and bait cannister

Nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) interacting with bait cannister

 

And what did you go on to find?

We found that nurse sharks have a variety of different foraging behaviours they can use. We went through and classified four foraging behaviours and one non-foraging behaviour. The first behaviour is vertical feeding, where the shark has positioned its body above the bait cage, with their head down and a vertical posture in the water. Then we’ve got the pectoral positioning behaviour, which we said looked like walking, where the sharks are arching and bending one or both of their pectoral fins, touching them against the sea floor and then using them to propel and move themselves around the bait. Then we’ve got the stationary horizontal feeding behaviour, so this is where a shark is horizontally positioned with its head close to the bait cage. It can be performed at different angles but generally the shark is flat, lying motionless on the seafloor and just sucking at the bait cage. Then we’ve got the ventral feed, where the shark is almost flipped upside down onto it’s back, with its belly facing upwards towards the surface and is trying to get underneath the bait cage. The final behaviour is the swim pass with the shark just swimming past the BRUV and not interacting with the bait cage.

BRUV footage of nurse shark foraging behaviours.

 

So, after classifying those different behaviours, we wanted to see what the purpose of these behaviours was and if there were any trends. Was depth affecting those behaviours? Was habitat type affecting those behaviours? We found that depth did affect one of the behaviours, which was the swim pass behaviour. In deeper water the sharks were swimming past less than they were in shallower water. This is potentially because nurse sharks could be feeding at deeper depths. However, this was not directly related to the foraging behaviours. We also wanted to compare the different foraging behaviours and whether they differed in sandy bank habitats, compared to reef habitats. Putting all the stats together we did find that the stationary horizontal feeding behaviour was more common on the bank habitats, the behaviour where they’re lying almost motionless on the seafloor. That’s probably because that behaviour is an easy behaviour to perform, it doesn’t require a lot of energy. They can simply lie there on a sandy bank habitat because there’s nothing obstructing them like there would be on a reef habitat, where corals might be getting in the way.

We didn’t find any trends between the other foraging behaviours based on habitat type, but we do think, even though we couldn’t prove it with the stats, that those more complex behaviours, like the vertical feed, are probably more common on the reef habitats. They could be used by the nurse shark to traverse their way around rocks and corals, and that might make it easier for them to get to that bait.

We also looked at the pectoral positioning behaviour, which we loosely termed as ‘walking’, although that’s a very human way of looking at it. We had another scientist come on board who knows a lot about the inner muscle workings of nurse shark pectoral fins. Unlike many other shark species, nurse sharks have specific skeletal and muscular adaptations of their pectoral fins that allow them to bend them in that way. This is similarly seen in the epaulette shark, a relative of the nurse shark, which we know is a species which can truly walk across rocks using its pectoral fins. We think that potentially nurse sharks and epaulette sharks have similar adaptations in their pectoral fins that allow them to exhibit this behaviour.

And so why is this research important?

When we look at this in real world terms, if we remove the bait, in a complex reef habitat a nurse shark might be trying to get to prey that could be hiding under rocks and corals. The range of different foraging behaviours they can use helps them capture that prey when they might be in tricky habitats. They can use the different behaviours in their repertoire.

This research therefore illustrates the behavioural adaptability of nurse sharks across a variety of habitats and provides further understanding of their ecological role, as we know quite little about them.

Summary of Kristian’s paper: Opportunistic camera surveys provide insight into discrete foraging behaviours in nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum).

 

Have BRUVS been used to look at behaviours like this before?

BRUVS really haven’t been used to analyse behaviour that much in the way that we’ve used it in this paper. It has been done in the literature but its not the normal way that scientists use BRUVS. Generally, they’re used to look at relative abundance and species diversity across space and time and so this was an interesting way to look at behaviour.

Obviously, there are limitations to using BRUVS in this way. We have to think about the fact that we are using bait, a simulated food offering, to attract sharks and observe their behaviour. The behaviours we observe are influenced by the fact that we’ve lured the sharks in. We posed however that the alternative is too difficult. The number of hours in the water it would take for people to observe these behaviours naturally, we just wouldn’t collect enough data. We also have to consider other challenges, for example not being able to differentiate between individuals on the BRUVS. So, it could be only one or two sharks that are performing these behaviours. We did counter for that by spacing these BRUVS around the islands, in many different areas, so we would obviously hope its not just one shark moving from one to the next. But overall, it was a really interesting piece of work and it was great to work with Beneath the Waves on this, alongside scientists at the University of Exeter.

Check out Kristian’s Youtube Channel “Shark Bytes” below: CRAZY Nurse Shark Feeding Behaviours (My Research!) – YouTube

Follow this link to read the full paper: Opportunistic camera surveys provide insight into discrete foraging behaviours in nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) | SpringerLink

Research Insights: Dr Phil Doherty on “SharkGuard” – A Novel Bycatch Mitigation Device

Oceanic sharks & ray populations have declined >70% in the last 50 yrs. ExeterMarine lecturer Dr Phil Doherty recently published an exciting paper using a novel device, “SharkGuard”, which uses electric pulses to deter sharks from fishing hooks in an effort to reduce bycatch. This may provide hope for the future of sharks and rays – read on as we chat with him about this work.

Dr Phil Doherty, Lecturer in Marine Conservation Science, University of Exeter

 

Hi Phil, thank you for joining us. To start with, can you give us a bit of background about yourself and your research?

Hi, thanks for inviting me – my research largely focuses on the presence and movement of large vertebrates, particularly sharks. For example, my PhD focused on tracking basking sharks in UK waters. I tend to use different technologies and methods to try and look at where things are, when they’re there, and what they might be doing there. I also try to inform on implementing some sort of management or policy strategy to try and make sure that times when these species of conservation concern are vulnerable, or are in places in high numbers, that they have some level of protection, whether that’s an MPA or another form of mitigation.

This has developed more recently into using fisheries data to look into catch composition and seasonality of fisheries landings to try to look at ways to prevent certain species being caught, certain sizes being caught, and more recently looking at bycatch (unwanted or unintentionally caught species) specifically. We are trying to get a grip on species that are being caught when they shouldn’t be, or aren’t wanted, and what we can do about that. Are there ways that we can prevent things being caught in the first place?

Bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) catch onboard a longline vessel in southern France.

Photo Credit: Fishtek Marine.

 

Focusing on shark bycatch, which is the subject of your recent paper, what is the issue there?

Sharks and rays are groups of species that span most trophic levels, provide many ecosystem services, and are found in every ocean; so, talking about sharks and rays in general is quite difficult. However, in terms of larger bodied sharks and rays, and especially oceanic and pelagic species, their populations are under massive strain and most of that is from fishing pressure. Some of this is intentional capture, where sharks and rays are caught as the target species, but more often sharks and rays are caught as bycatch, as these species are often found in similar areas, exploiting similar resources as the target species.

This is having a massive impact on populations and these oceanic species that show more broad-ranging movements get caught a lot, due to high overlap with the big fisheries – the big purse seine and longline fisheries. This can cause a problematic scenario, which is often is a two-way thing, the fisheries quite often don’t want the sharks and obviously the sharks don’t want to be caught, but the numbers currently caught is really detrimental.

And so, what research have you been undertaking recently?

We have been working with Fishtek Marine, a conservation engineering company based in Devon. They develop all sorts of devices and mitigation strategies to try and prevent lots of different bycatch, from seabirds to turtles to cetaceans; and now for sharks and rays. They’ve developed a device called SharkGuard, which is a small device that you can fix just above a fishing hook on a longline, and it emits a pulsed electrical field around the baited hook.

Sharks and rays possess an extra sensory capability that bony fish and mammals largely lack. Sharks and rays have organs called ampullae of Lorenzini that are made up of small pores around their nose and mouth that can detect faint electrical impulses. It’s often how sharks and rays find prey, whether they’re buried in the sand or moving at the surface. The aim of SharkGuard is to overstimulate these electrosensory organs to deter the sharks and rays from engaging with the hook. It is quite effective in the sense that it’s a very short-range pulse, localised around the hook. Sharks have what’s known as a hierarchy of senses; switching between senses as they approach their prey ending with electrosensory capabilities very late on, just before biting the bait, only centimetres from their prey. Therefore, we have this short pulse, where we’re hoping that the shark might come close to the hook, but it won’t actually attempt to take the bait and therefore will swim away unharmed.

We trialled SharkGuard in a longline bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) fishery in southern France, where they target bluefin tuna, a very prized resource, but the fishery is has a large bycatch component comprised mostly of blue sharks (Prionace glauca) and pelagic stingrays (Pteroplatytrygon violacea).

Schematic diagram depicting the effect of the SharkGuard electrical pulse.

Photo Credit: Fishtek Marine.

 

And you’ve had some very exciting results?

Yes, we tried this out with an experimental design where we aimed to have fishing operations exactly as it would be normally for the fishers. We alternated a control hook (normal fishing set-up) with a SharkGuard device attached to it. So, we had normal hook, SharkGuard hook, normal hook going all the way out. Two boats set longlines of 1000 hooks, 500 of each hook type, and they fished all summer like they would normally. We compared the catch rates for blue sharks, pelagic stingrays, and the target species, bluefin tuna to see if there was any difference between the hook types.

We found that the SharkGuard hooks significantly decreased the catch of both blue sharks and pelagic stingrays by huge amounts – a 91% reduction for blue sharks and a 71% reduction for pelagic stingrays.

Whilst we’re not trying to claim that we’ve solved bycatch for sharks and rays, this is a really important step to showing that this kind of device is effective for this sort of scenario. We’re now trying to look at other opportunities to try it in different fisheries to see how well it works, or how we might tweak the design to make sure that it can work for different species and in different environments.

We also want to make sure it is suitable for different target catch, because obviously fisheries aren’t going to uptake this kind of device if they don’t catch the things they do want to catch. So, it’s finding that balance, but we’re really impressed with the first trial results as we know it does work, it can work, and it’s important to try and start reducing this kind of bycatch.

SharkGuard devices attached to longline hooks in setting bins ready for deployment.

Photo Credit: Fishtek Marine.

 

Have there been any other kind of mitigation efforts like this before for shark bycatch?

Not quite like this. Researchers have tried all sorts of stuff, lights on hooks, sound, different smells to try and deter sharks, fishing at different depths, different times of the day – lots, and lots of different approaches. There was quite a push a while ago of trialling rare-Earth metals and magnets to try and almost create the same kind of effect that we were just talking about with a magnetic field. However, these effects don’t last very long in saltwater, so can be quite laborious as you have to change them quite often and their effectiveness reduces over time. The electrical deterrent side of things has focused more on development for personal use, so for people surfing or out on kayaks with wristband type designs, having mixed results. The development from this side of things is quite novel in terms of putting electronic devices on the hook. The technology and the idea have been around for a while, but this kind of application is new.

Do you think that the devices will be well accepted by fisheries?

Yes, I really hope so – we’ve had some pretty positive feedback so far. I think it’s because we’re not trying to tell people to not fish, we’re trying to just say if you fish, can you maybe put these devices out and maybe give the sharks and rays a chance. The fishers that we worked with in France liked it because it didn’t change how they set up their gear or approached fishing activities. They still had their same way of putting the hooks on the line and bringing the catch back to the boat. It didn’t get in their way, and it wasn’t extra work.

Normally, when they do have bycatch, they just cut the line, so, potentially the shark or ray is cut loose with a hook in its mouth and trailing fishing line with the thought that it swims away and survives, but this may not be the case. The fishers then have to spend time fixing the line and attaching replacement gear. Also, catching a stingray that’s not very happy or a shark is dangerous for the fishers and as such don’t want them on the line. Plus, any hook that doesn’t have a shark on it could have a tuna on it instead, so the benefit could be huge.

Fishtek are in the process of developing induction charging bins, so when the hooks are placed back in the bins after hauling a set, it automatically charges the SharkGuard devices reducing effort for the fishers and removing need to replace batteries. We’re trying to make it as bulletproof as possible. Yes, there’s a large financial outlay in the beginning, but once setup you’re good to go.

Take a look at the video below to see the story so far…

SharkGuard (the story so far…) – YouTube

Read the full paper: PD Doherty, R Enever, LCM Omeyer, L Tivenan, G Course, G Pasco, D Thomas, B Sullivan, B Kibel, P Kibel, BJ Godley (2022). Efficacy of a novel shark bycatch mitigation device in a tuna longline fishery. Current Biology: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2022.09.003.

A Placement Year at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML)

On some University of Exeter courses there is the option to take a professional placement, where students can gain valuable experience with an organisation relevant to their degree. Below we hear from Sophie Armitage, now in her final year of her BSc Zoology course, who decided to undertake a professional placement with Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML). Sophie discusses her experiences working on a plastics and machine learning project, which was recently published.

Author: Sophie Armitage

Data collection of plastics whilst out at sea in Cawsand Bay, Cornwall on the PML Explorer.

After spending my first two years of university in and out of lockdowns, I decided to take a placement year to try and gain some more practical experience. A placement year is a brilliant opportunity to obtain skills and learn more about your industry of interest, with both the financial support of being a student and the protection of being part of a university.

I spent my placement year at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), a marine research organisation based in the South-West. Whilst at PML I worked on a project which aimed to create a standardized, automated approach to collecting in-situ data of floating marine macroplastics. These observations are very limited in current literature and often involve costly and labour-intensive methods. Our approach used a trained Artificial Intelligence (AI) model which was able to recognise and classify the different types of marine plastic captured in images shot by a boat-mounted video camera. The overall aim of this project is to increase the number of in-situ floating macroplastic observations to support the validation and development of remote sensing methods. These methods could subsequently be used to further our understanding of the global abundance and distribution of marine plastic debris.

Whilst searching for possible placements I was firstly interested in working abroad, however most of the opportunities I found at the time were limited due to COVID-19 and were very costly. To avoid this, I contacted PhD students and researchers in my area of interest which led to me finding work experience. This involved a significant amount of perseverance as a large proportion of my emails weren’t answered. Despite this, I would highly recommend using this approach to find work experience as it can lead to some amazing opportunities. I found the Plymouth Marine Laboratory when looking at marine research industries in the South-West. Having seen the wide variety of exciting and influential research at PML, I was eager to get involved. After sending out numerous emails to scientists at PML I received an offer to work on this project.

During my time at PML I had the amazing opportunity to work on every step of the project, starting in the planning stages all the way through to writing the scientific paper. I spent my first month at PML researching and learning more about machine learning and remote sensing. Both topics were very new to me, so I had a lot to learn. To aid this process PML sent me on a week-long NEODAAS Earth Observation and Machine Learning training course. This was an incredible opportunity to meet scientists from around the world who had a similar interest and to understand my project further.

I was also sent on a sea survival course so that I could go out to sea on PML’s vessels: the Quest and the Explorer RIB. Next, I worked on developing and testing methods to collect footage which we would use for training and testing our machine learning model. To achieve this, I worked in collaboration with a local software engineering firm called Marine AI. The team has developed and created the impressive Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), which recently crossed the Atlantic. We hoped our algorithm could be used on that crossing, so most of our data used to train our model was collected on the MAS prior to its departure and whilst it was moored. Data was also collected on the PML’s RIB, which allowed us to go out to sea and record macroplastics. After all our footage was collected and labelled, I spent the next few months converting our data into the right format for training the machine learning model using Python. This stage of the project was the most challenging for me as I had no previous Python experience. Therefore, I had a huge learning curve to overcome, which was sometimes very overwhelming. However, I had a great team who were very patient and always went above and beyond to teach me as much as possible and support me throughout the project.

Mayflower Autonomous Ship, used for collecting footage of plastics using their vessel-mounted camera.

Once our data was in the right format we could then train and test our machine learning model. Our model was able to successfully detect the presence of plastics with an accuracy of 95% and could differentiate between plastic object types with an accuracy of 68%. This was a great achievement and meant we could publish our results. Writing my first scientific paper felt very exciting and also very challenging. On reflection, this process was made so much easier because I had deliberately ensured I had a record of the details of the methods I was using throughout the project. This, alongside the training I received from Exeter University in my first and second year, helped me overcome this demanding task. The final version of our paper was published by the journal Remote Sensing, which can be found here: Remote Sensing | Free Full-Text | Detection and Classification of Floating Plastic Litter Using a Vessel-Mounted Video Camera and Deep Learning | HTML (mdpi.com). I responded to my supervisor’s encouragement to be involved with the whole process of publishing a paper, from picking a journal, submitting it and replying to peer reviewers’ comments. This was an amazing opportunity, which led to me learning a huge amount which will hopefully benefit me in my final year.

Example labelled image used for training our machine learning algorithm.

Once our paper was published, we received some media attention. This meant I had the incredible opportunity to be interviewed by BBC Devon and Times Radio, as well as have our project featured on BBC Spotlight.

Photos from the BBC Spotlight piece, where we demonstrated the process of collecting training footage and running the footage through our machine learning algorithm.

During my placement year, I learnt a huge number of not only academic skills but also life skills. For instance, I learnt the value of seizing as many opportunities as possible. This allowed me to work within other departments such as the microplastic department, where I gained vital lab experience and in the ecology department where I was able to gain some more fieldwork experience during benthic surveys. By doing this I was not only gaining a wider variety of new skills and experiences, but also expanding my network. During my placement year I also massively improved my communication skills and confidence from having to communicate my work with other scientists and to the general public during the media coverage. This experience allowed me to learn new skills which go beyond what can be learnt in a classroom and I am very grateful and proud of what I achieved.

Advice I would give to other students:

• When looking for placements try emailing students/researchers in your area of interest. To do this you can create a general email in the style of a cover letter explaining who you are, what you are hoping to gain from your placement year, why you want to work for that specific company/industry and what skills and experience you can bring to the company. You can always speak to Career Zone, tutors and placement leads for advice on how to do this.

• Try not to be too disheartened by rejections. It is very hard to find work experience and sometimes it takes a lot of time and rejections until you find the right fit, especially in such a competitive industry like marine biology. For example, I didn’t find my placement until the end of August and I had been looking for one since December.

• Once on your placement volunteer for as much as possible; this will not only impress your employer but can lead to some invaluable learning and experiences. For instance, originally it was not planned for me to have such an involvement in the whole process of my project, to be doing any Python or writing the paper. However, I volunteered for as much as I could while at PML, which led to me having an amazing experience.

 

 

 

MSc Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation Fieldwork Week 2022

As part of the MSc Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation Skills module, students undertake a series of fieldwork sessions within the region of Cornwall, providing them a working knowledge of key practical fieldwork skills and the ability for them to apply the developed skills in future professional settings. Below we hear from MSc Marine Vertebrate Ecology & Conservation student, Lorraine Aldridge, where she discusses her experience throughout the duration of the fieldwork and what it entailed.

Author – Lorraine Aldridge

On-board Marine Discovery, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

 

Boat trips – AK Wildlife, Atlantic Diving and Marine Discovery

As part of our fieldwork boat trips, we were split into groups and timetabled for a range of boat trips, ranging from 4 hours to 7 hours, across the course of the two weeks. The trips left from Falmouth with local wildlife watching and scuba diving companies, AK Wildlife Cruises, Atlantic Diving and a third trip from Penzance with Marine Discovery. These boat trips provided us with the opportunity to develop and improve upon our species identification skills, and practice distance sampling strategy, a widely used and powerful method to systematically assess the density and abundance of cetaceans and marine vertebrates at sea.

Common Dolphin sighted near Falmouth, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

I started the first day of the week with AK Wildlife Cruises, meeting at Falmouth Marina, prepared with waterproofs, snacks, binoculars, a camera, notebook, clipboard, pencil, and sea sickness tablets, ready to spot some marine vertebrates! Upon boarding the boats each day, we were split into groups and given a GPS to track a running log for our distance sampling. We recorded effort every 15 minutes and any sightings on a separate recording sheet.

Each boat trip brought something new, a sighting, a location, or a breakthrough in identification ability (for me at least). Some of my highlights of these half-day or full-day boat trips around the Cornish coastline were spotting a puffin, a juvenile porpoise, a huge barrel jellyfish, bow riding common dolphins and improving my seabird identification skills. Every boat trip felt magical, it was a gentle reminder to me about how lucky we are to be studying in such an amazing place for marine life.

Herring Gull sighted near Falmouth, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Juvenile Common Dolphin near Penzance, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Common Dolphins sighted near Penzance, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Another highlight was spotting a minke whale near Penzance, along with a few grey seals making a surprise appearance.

When the weather was less than ideal, we took a detour from the open sea and headed down the Fal River and up the estuary, which brought a new plethora of wildlife to enjoy and explore. Sightings ranged from a peregrine falcon, great northern diver, deer, shelduck, cormorants, terns and seals.

 

Cornish Seal sanctuary

As part of our field week, we visited the Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, where we were given a guided tour and a private Q&A session. We gained an insight into the process of the rehabilitation of over 70 grey seal pups found within local coastal waters annually.

We learned the journey that rescued seals go through, starting with the specialist seal hospital, then onto rehabilitation in the main sanctuary, alongside how they go about caring for their resident grey and common seals.

Common Seals, Cornish Seal Sanctuary, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Seal Pup Cornish Seal Sanctuary, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Cornish Seal Sanctuary, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Isles of Scilly

On the 6thApril 2022, we embarked on our journey on the Scillonian, from Penzance across to the Isles of Scilly. The crossing over consisted of group distance sampling, (whilst concentrating on not feeling seasick), and took just under 3 hours. With binoculars and range sticks at the ready, we saw lots of manx shearwaters, cormorants, shags, gannets, gulls, auks and fulmar. Once we reached St Marys, the largest island of the archipelago, we boarded a smaller boat across to St Anges, where we would be camping for the following two nights.

Campsite St Agnes, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Once we arrived at the campsite, we had a guided wildlife walk tour of St. Agnes and Gugh by Will Wagstaff, a leading ornithologist and naturalist in the Isles of Scilly. Will showed us the resident lesser black-backed gull nesting colony and we explored the island before setting up our tents. In the evening, Dr Alice Trevail provided a talk on her research on British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) Marine Protected Areas for habitat use of non-breeding seabirds in the Western Indian Ocean.

Wildlife guided walk Gugh, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Lesser black-backed gull nesting colony, Gugh, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

The few days following on the Isles of Scilly consisted of a boat trip around the islands, where we tested our sea bird identification skills and saw a range of species such as fulmar, puffins, razorbills, guillemots, grey seals, gannets, a talk from Jaclyn Pearson, biosecurity officer for the RSPB. Community volunteers also joined and we learned about biosecurity on St Agnes (the world’s largest community-led rat removal project) and the community effort to keep St Agnes rat-free.

Brown rats arrived on the islands in the 18th century and as the population of rats grew, they became harmful to the burrow-nesting seabirds, such as the European storm petrels and manx shearwaters. Jaclyn told us how since removing rats, storm petrels have returned to breed on St Agnes and Gugh and manx shearwater fledged chicks for the first time in living memory (back in 2013). 2015 saw the return of breeding European storm petrels, with numbers of both increasing ever since. We then had a tour of the island, meeting community volunteers, whilst also carrying out a section of the rat trap wax checks as we went.

Plastic-free lobster pot fishing, Jof Hicks Isles of Scilly, Photos: Lorraine Aldridge

We were also treated to manx playback from the burrows, which was one of my highlights of the trip.

Lundy Island 12th April 2022

The week following our trip to the Isles of Scilly, and in between a week of boat trips with AK Wildlife, Atlantic Diver and Marine Discovery, we split into two groups across two-day trips to visit Lundy Island, the first designated Marine Conservation Area in the UK.

MS Oldenburg, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Lundy lies off the coast of North Devon, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Bristol Channel, and is owned by the National Trust and managed by the Landmark Trust. The two charities have worked together since 1969 to restore and protect all that is cherished and special about Lundy departing from Ilfracombe Harbour on the MS Oldenburg, which took approximately 2 hours each way. The boat trip over was a great way to start homing in our identification skills, spotting a range of sea birds already mentioned in this blog, as well as enjoying some bow-riding dolphins and grey seals.

Lundy Island, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Once we arrived on the island, we were taken on a guided tour up and across the island to the nesting bird colony where we were lucky enough to see some puffins, lots of gulls, and even a grey phalarope.

Wheatear, Lundy Island, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Highland cattle, Lundy Island, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Grey Seal, Lundy Island, Photo: Lorraine Aldridge

Field week

These two weeks of fieldwork allowed us to bond as a course and spend time with each other outside of a lecture setting, network and develop as marine scientists, in an organic fieldwork setting. From carrying out distance sampling, experiencing long days out at sea, sharpening sea bird and marine mammal identification, and developing teamwork/field group communication skills. The two weeks allowed us to develop as marine conservationists and in practical fieldwork environments, which has been a highlight of the degree!

Tracking the Movements of Montserrat’s Marine Turtles

Authors – Dr Nicola Weber (Project Leader) and Jack Wiggins (Graduate Research Assistant)

In 2019, a team of researchers from the University of Exeter, Government of Montserrat and Marine Conservation Society were awarded a Darwin Initiative grant to create and implement a Marine Turtle Action Plan on the UK Overseas Territory of Montserrat. The global pandemic delayed a number of the outputs, but we are now excited to bring you our first update from the field!

Lead researchers Dr Sam Weber and Graduate Research Assistant Jack Wiggins from the University of Exeter arrived in Montserrat in June to work alongside staff from the Government of Montserrat and members of the Marine Conservation Society during the turtle nesting season. The project funded by Darwin Initiative will collate both social and biological data to help conserve and manage marine turtle populations around Montserrat. The island supports regionally important populations of green and hawksbill turtles and also gets occasional visits from loggerhead and leatherback turtles.

Graduate Research Assistant, Jack Wiggins provides an update from the island:

Arrival in Montserrat

“It’s nearly over a month since we arrived in Montserrat, and what a month it has been. Twenty minutes after departing Antigua in a tiny six-seater aircraft we arrived in Montserrat and were picked up by Montserrat’s Chief Fisheries Officer, Alwyn Ponteen, and taken to our quarantine villa. From here, we looked over the calm, clear and turquoise waters of Isles Bay – a key mating and nesting site for green sea turtles. We would sit on the balcony, binoculars glued to our faces looking out over the bay watching mating turtles, pelicans diving bombing into the water for food and frigate birds tracking shoals of bait fish further offshore itching to get out and explore the island. After five days of mandatory quarantine and receiving our negative PCR test results we were free to explore “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean”. On the first day, our host, Chief Fisheries Officer at the Government of Montserrat, Mr Alwyn Ponteen, took us on an island tour where we visited a dozen of the islands’ turtle nesting beaches and tried out some of the local delicacies Montserrat has to offer. The next day we would start our night-time beach surveys with local legend Mr John Jeffers who has been monitoring turtle nesting activities in Montserrat for over 30 years.”

Night-time nesting surveys

“Over the past few weeks, we have been conducting night-time nesting surveys to help understand how many individuals are nesting along the coast of Montserrat. To do this, any nesting female turtles we have encountered laying, we have inserted a PIT tag – a small microchip like those used for cats and dogs – into the right shoulder of the turtle and also attached two flipper tags. Each tag has a unique number so if a researcher, fisher or member of the public encounters a tagged turtle in the future (be it on Montserrat or further afield) and can record the tag number we will know exactly which turtle was encountered and where. Tagging nesting females can help us to understand how many adult females there are in a population which can also help us to keep track of whether the population is growing or shrinking over time.”

Jack and Sam prepare the satellite telemetry devices ready for deployment.

The research grant has funded 10 satellite telemetry devices for the researchers to attach to adult female turtles nesting on Montserrat’s beaches. This state of the art technology allows us to gain an understanding of the movements of these turtles both around Montserrat during the nesting season and then during their migration back to their feeding grounds. Identifying patterns of space use provides the evidence base needed for managing and protecting important marine areas, for example by regulating boat traffic and fishing activity in areas where turtles are congregating or mating around during the nesting season. Only one turtle from Montserrat has previously been tracked with a satellite telemetry device so there is much excitement around these recent deployments.

On average, female green and hawksbill turtles will reproduce every 2-3 years and lay over 3 clutches of eggs within a single nesting season. Each clutch can contain between 100-200 eggs and can take between 45- 60 days to incubate. After a female has finished laying for the season, she will migrate back to her foraging grounds where she will remain for 2-3 years until she has built up sufficient energy reserves to reproduce again and repeat the cycle.

The local team, Turtle Project Officer Mr John Jeffers, Chief Fisheries Officer Mr Alwyn Ponteen, Data Collector Mr Gerard Cassell, with female turtle post-satellite tag attachment.

The University of Exeter and Government of Montserrat field team managed to deploy all ten of the satellite transmitters within 2 weeks, which involved many long nights spent waiting on the beaches until females had finished laying and covering their eggs. The turtle was held in a pen while the device was attached to the back of her carapace (shell) using epoxy resin glue, as you can see in the photos. When the turtle comes to the surface to breathe, this device will send a message to a satellite containing data that can be used to determine the location of the turtle. Excitingly, this can be viewed online in real-time here.

A turtle returning to the sea on Isles Bay, Montserrat after having laid her eggs and had a satellite tag attached.

The accuracy of raw locations received from the satellite-based location system can vary depending on the number of messages received from the transmitter, environmental conditions, and the relative positions of the transmitter and satellites. That is why when the turtles are close to shore they can appear to be located on land, but, other than when they are nesting, they definitely are not! Once all of the data have been collected, a range of analytical tools and filters are used to process these locations and produce a ‘clean’ map; but it is very exciting being able to get an idea of their locations in real-time. At the time of writing this blog post, one turtle (Laynakiki) has begun her migration and has passed close by Guadeloupe and Dominica! These tracks will provide us with a fascinating insight into the secret lives of these turtles once they have left Montserrat’s shores.

Jack counting tracks as part of daily monitoring.

What’s next?

Jack will remain on island, based with the local Government of Montserrat team until the end of this turtle nesting season in October. The team is continuing with some night-time surveys and tagging nesting females with flipper and PIT tags if encountered, but will mainly be focusing on conducting day-time beach counts, which is the most efficient method for estimating the nesting population size. During the mornings, Jack alongside local Project Officers, Data Collectors and Youth Trainees will be patrolling the nesting beaches to count how many nesting activities occurred the night before and to take GPS locations of any nests laid. Taking GPS locations of nests helps us to identify nesting hotspots around Montserrat and better understand which beaches are key nesting sites that should be monitored more frequently. The on-island team will also be monitoring nest productivity – counting how many turtles emerge from the nests both routinely in the hatchery and opportunistically on the nesting beaches.

All of these different aspects of biological research will inform the Marine Turtle Action Plan for Montserrat which will be written after another full season of data collection next year. This is also being informed by knowledge and views of the local community through project partners – the social science team at the Marine Conservation Society. You can read more about this at their blog.

 

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, please visit our website!

Juntos podemos? Promover ações para a conservação marinha

Autora – Dr Ana Nuno

Uma pequena ilha remota e pouco conhecida situada no Golfo da Guiné, ao largo da costa da África Central, Príncipe (São Tomé e Príncipe) e a sua população dependem fortemente da pesca artesanal. Quando as comunidades piscatórias da ilha nos dizem que têm de viajar mais longe, passar mais tempo no mar e aumentar a quantidade de equipamento de pesca para obter quantidades semelhantes de peixe que costumavam capturar perto da costa há alguns anos, isto soa muito familiar. Estes problemas são sentidos em muitas zonas costeiras por todo o mundo e podem ser particularmente graves em pequenos estados insulares em desenvolvimento, onde os recursos para a gestão são escassos e as pessoas geralmente têm acesso limitado a outras oportunidades.

Uma comunidade piscatória no Príncipe / Dário Pequeno Paraíso

As comunidades piscatórias são cruciais na abordagem de questões de conservação em todo o mundo. A participação das partes interessadas e a co-gestão das pescas têm sido reconhecidas como abordagens-chave, particularmente quando a execução é um desafio devido à capacidade limitada do Estado. Mas como podemos promover ações individuais e apoiar medidas que melhorem os ecossistemas marinhos? Alguns poderão dizer que precisamos de empoderar as partes interessadas. O empoderamento tornou-se um conceito popular em conservação mas, embora bem intencionado, é muitas vezes utilizado como uma palavra da moda com alegações pouco claras. Como podemos avançar para além desta palavra da moda em conservação?

comerciantes de peixe e pescadores a puxar um barco / Dário Pequeno Paraíso

Centrando-se na conservação marinha e pesca artesanal no Príncipe, o nosso novo artigo científico publicado na revista Conservation Letters identifica os principais determinantes do empoderamento psicológico para a conservação e explora as possíveis implicações para a gestão de recursos. Feito como parte de um projeto financiado pela Darwin Initiative e em parceria com a Fundação Príncipe (uma ONG baseada na ilha), esta investigação incorporou discussões de grupos focais e questionários a agregados familiares (869 pessoas entrevistadas numa ilha com cerca de 8000 residentes!). Recolhemos informações sobre, por exemplo, características individuais e do agregado familiar; utilização de recursos naturais; perceções sobre possíveis intervenções; e múltiplos componentes de empoderamento (por exemplo, governação, liberdade de escolha & ação, participação, controlo e colaboração).

Questionários no Príncipe / Litoney Matos

Constatámos que era mais provável as pessoas acreditarem que poderiam pessoalmente fazer uma diferença na proteção do ambiente marinho na ilha se também: sentissem que a aplicação das leis pelo estado estava a desempenhar um papel ativo, tinham níveis mais elevados de liberdade de escolha e ação individual, e acreditavam que as suas comunidades poderiam, coletivamente, melhorar os resultados. Os entrevistados que responderam “não sei” sobre a atual condição do ambiente marinho na ilha foram menos propensos a acreditar que poderiam fazer a diferença do que aqueles que acreditaram que as condições do ambiente marinho permaneceram as mesmas, piores ou melhores do que antes.

Considerando potenciais intervenções, as pessoas que consideram ter níveis mais elevados de influência sobre a conservação marinha eram as mais propensas a recomendar medidas específicas (por exemplo, criação de áreas de pesca interdita). Isto sugere ligações entre empoderamento e a aceitação social de potenciais intervenções específicas.

Porque é que isto importa? O envolvimento em projetos de conservação pode ser influenciado pela crença nas capacidades individuais para alcançar a mudança. Havendo agora um novo projecto na ilha liderado pela FFI e destinado a estabelecer a primeira rede de áreas marinhas protegidas no país, esta informação é crucial para compreender como envolver significativamente as comunidades locais e outras partes interessadas. Isto é essencial para identificar visões comuns e trabalhar em colaboração para as alcançar. Como esta investigação demonstra, isto pode exigir a abordagem de várias questões diferentes mas que andam de mãos dadas (por exemplo, acesso a oportunidades, sensibilização sobre as condições dos ecossistemas marinhos e reforço da aplicação da lei), para que as pessoas acreditem que a sua contribuição pode realmente fazer a diferença. Embora o envolvimento e a participação sejam definitivamente necessários, são essenciais as condições adequadas para que estes deem frutos.

Se quiser saber mais informações sobre este projeto em Príncipe, consulte o nosso website e veja o nosso vídeo para dar um passeio por esta ilha fantástica!

 

Together We Can? Promoting Action for Marine Conservation

AuthorDr Ana Nuno

A remote and poorly known small island located in the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of Central Africa, Príncipe (São Tomé & Príncipe) and its people rely heavily on small scale fisheries. When fishing communities on the island tell us that they have to travel farther away, spend more time at sea and increase the amount of fishing gear to get similar amounts of fish that they used to catch near the coast some years ago, it all sounds too familiar. These problems are felt in many coastal areas all over the world and can be particularly severe in small-island developing states, where resources for management are scarce and people often have limited access to other opportunities.

A fishing community in Príncipe / Dário Pequeno Paraíso

Fishing communities are crucial in addressing conservation issues worldwide. Stakeholder participation and fisheries co-management have been recognised as key approaches, particularly when enforcement is challenging due to limited state capacity. But how can we promote individual action and support for measures that improve marine ecosystems? Some might say we need to empower stakeholders. Empowerment has become a popular concept in conservation but, while well-meant, it is often used as a buzzword with unclear claims. How can we move beyond the conservation buzzword?

Fish traders and fisher pulling a boat / Dário Pequeno Paraíso

Focusing on marine conservation and small-scale fisheries in Príncipe, our new paper published in Conservation Letters identifies key determinants of psychological empowerment towards conservation and explores potential management implications. Done as part of a Darwin Initiative project and in partnership with Fundação Príncipe (an NGO based on the island), this research incorporated focus group discussions and household questionnaires (869 people interviewed on an island with around 8000 residents!). We gathered information on, for example, individual and household characteristics; use of natural resources; perceptions about potential interventions; and multiple components of empowerment (e.g. governance, freedom of choice and action, participation, control and collaboration).

Questionnaires in Príncipe / Litoney Matos

We found that people were more likely to believe they could personally make a difference towards protecting the marine environment on the island if they also: felt state law enforcement was currently playing an active role, had higher levels of individual freedom of choice and action, and believed their communities could, collectively, improve outcomes. Respondents who answered “don’t know” about the current marine environment condition on the island were less likely to believe they could make a difference than those who believed the marine environment conditions had remained the same, worse, or better than before.

Considering potential interventions, people with higher levels of self-perceived influence over marine conservation were more likely to recommend specific measures (e.g. creating no-fishing areas). This suggests linkages between psychological empowerment and social acceptability of specific potential interventions.

Why does this matter? Engagement in conservation projects may be influenced by the belief of one’s own abilities to achieve change. As a follow-up project led by FFI and aimed at establishing the first network of marine protected areas in the country now takes place, this information is crucial for understanding how to meaningfully engage local communities and other stakeholders. This is needed for identifying common visions and collaboratively working towards achieving them. As this research shows, this might require tackling several different issues that go hand-in-hand (e.g. access to opportunities, awareness about condition of marine ecosystems and enhancing enforcement), so that people believe their contributions can actually make a difference. While engagement and participation are definitely needed, suitable conditions are essential for those to bear fruit.

If you’d like to find out more info about this project in Príncipe, check out our website and watch our video to take a stroll through this fantastic island!

 

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, please visit our website!

World Oyster Day MSc Graduate in Focus: Celine Gamble

Today, for World Oyster Day, we meet Celine Gamble, MSc Biodiversity and Conservation (2017) and BSc Zoology (2015) graduate, now working as a Project Manager at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Celine on a visit to an oyster farm on Angle Bay, Wales /ZSL

Hi Celine! Why don’t you tell us a bit about what you are up to now?

I am a Project Manager in the Conservation and Policy department at ZSL and Visiting Researcher at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Marine Sciences. I work within the ZSL Estuaries and Wetlands team, which has a varied programme of marine conservation projects, including marine habitat restoration and monitoring of marine species, such as sharks and seals, in the River Thames and outer Thames Estuaries.

During my current role I manage a new project, Wild Oysters, and a Network of restoration practitioners around the UK & Ireland. I work closely with a range of stakeholders including NGO’s, academics, oystermen, government agencies and community groups. My role is very varied, including a mix of physical restoration, science communication, networking, and scientific research.

Find out more about the ZSL Marine and Freshwater Conservation projects here.

A Native Oyster Reef in France /Stephane Pouvreau

In celebration of World Oyster Day, it would be great to understand more about native oysters and why we need to restore them?

The European native oyster (Ostrea edulis) is the only true oyster species that is native to our UK coastlines. Native oysters once formed vast reefs along the coastlines of Europe, forming a dominant ecological feature of our coastal marine habitat.

Despite being relatively small in size (5-11cm), oysters are capable of making some big changes in our marine environment! For that reason, I like to think of them as little superheroes of the sea. A single oyster can filter ~200 litres of seawater per day, which can improve both water quality and clarity. The unique three-dimensional habitats created by oysters support a higher biodiversity of species than the surrounding seabed. Oyster reefs can also increase fish production, by providing a protective nursery ground for juveniles.

Native oyster reefs are now among the most threatened marine habitats in Europe. In the UK and Ireland populations have declined by 95%, as a result of historic overfishing, pollution, and disease. You can still see some remnant populations in the south east of England, west coast of Scotland and the south coast of Ireland. Due to the vast decline of the species, native oysters need active restoration method in order to prevent the species from becoming functionally extinct.

Please could you tell us a little more about what ZSL doing towards Oyster restoration?

Today on World Oyster Day we are very excited to be launching an exciting new marine habitat restoration project in the UK. ZSL along with partners, Blue Marine Foundation and British Marine, we have been awarded £1.18m to deliver the Wild Oysters project.

Wild Oysters is aiming to recover native oyster populations in the UK, and in turn bring back the ecosystem services they provide. Bringing conservation and industry together we will make a space for nature within marina sites. By installing oyster nurseries suspended underneath marina pontoons, we will release the next generation of oyster larvae to the seabed. The oyster larvae will then settle across three new oyster reefs created in British estuaries. In addition, the oyster nurseries will provide us with a “unique window into the ocean” acting as an engagement and education tool.

ZSL are co-founders of the Native Oyster Network, along with the University of Portsmouth, aiming to facilitate the ecologically coherent and collaborative approach to native oyster restoration in the UK & Ireland. ZSL also chair the Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative (ENORI), a collaboration between oystermen, government, conservationists and academia. Working towards the Essex estuaries having self-sustaining populations of native oysters, increased biodiversity and sustainable fisheries whilst recognising their cultural importance.

Osytermen in Essex who are part of the ENORI project /ZSL
Oyster reef deployment in Essex as part of ENORI project /ZSL

How did your studies at the University of Exeter shape where you work today?

I have developed a focused interest in the restoration of unique marine habitats around the UK. Many of these habitats such as seagrass beds, kelp forests, saltmarshes, and oyster reefs, are often overlooked. I developed a passion for both science communication and marine conservation whilst working and studying at the University of Exeter. My interests and skillset have been developed throughout my degrees, from carrying out UK based marine fieldwork, learning to dive in Cornwall and the extracurricular opportunities available at the university.

During my master’s I had an introduction to many different marine NGO’s and researchers via the Marine Biodiversity and Conservation module. I met Dr Heather Koldewey, who at the time was the Head of ZSL Marine and Freshwater, through this module. I later approached her to be my MSc thesis supervisor, which meant that I learnt a lot more about her research and the wider work of her team.

Any advice for anyone looking to pursue a career in marine conservation?

Reaching out to contacts that you have built throughout your degree, including fellow classmates and recent alumni, is a great place to start. Having a casual chat with someone who is working at an organisation you are keen to work for in the future, provides you with that initial step in the door. I also find that social media and online networking tools work very well for building your knowledge of the types of marine conservation organisations out there. I followed the ZSL Marine and Freshwater social media pages throughout my university degrees, which helped my understanding of the scope of work delivered by the team. This information later became very useful when applying for jobs that came up within the organisation.

Finally, I would say do not let an unsuccessful interview (or a few) put you off applying to the same organisation again if another job comes up. I was offered my first position at ZSL after applying to a few different roles and my third interview attempt.

Graduating on Gyllyngvase Beach, Cornwall /Celine Gamble

Thanks Celine!

You can keep up to date with Celine on Twitter (@CelineGamble) and Instagram (@celineg_marine)

Exeter Marine Podcast: Becoming Marine Biologists – with Lauren Henly, Emma Weschke and Tim Gordon

This episode was recorded back in early 2019. Ben talks to Lauren Henly, Emma Weschke and Tim Gordon, who are all masters by research or PhD students in Prof. Steve Simpson’s research group (you might remember Steve from an earlier episode, Coral Reef Bioacoustics Part I). The discussion focuses around the research they’re all undertaking, what got them interested in marine biology, and what they have done so far.

 


 

About our guests:

Emma Weschke

At the time of recording Emma was a masters by research student and is now undertaking a PhD with the University of Bristol focusing on coral reef fish ecology and bioacoustics.

Lauren Henly 

Lauren is a PhD student with the University of Exeter and Natural England studying functional ecology and behaviour of wrasse to inform management of wrasse fisheries. She provided us with the update below:

 “I’m now in the 3rd year of my PhD. I’ve been developing lots of different methods to assess the sustainability and potential impacts of the Live Wrasse Fishery on the south coast. I’m using genetics to look at the population structure of wrasse along the south coast so we can identify the most effective management unit size, using stable isotopes to predict the ecological impacts of the fishery, and working to ensure the views of other stakeholders (including recreational anglers) are considered when developing management measures for the fishery. It’s great being able to use such a broad range of techniques to address a key issue.”

Tim Gordon

Tim is completing a PhD with the University of Exeter and the Australian Institute for Marine Science focusing on coral reef bioacoustcs, what can you learn from coral reefs by listening to them. You can find out more about Tim’s work in a previous episode – Coral Reef Bioacoustics Part II.

 


 

Topics discussed:

  • Sustainability of wrasse fisheries around the UK.
  • Ecological consequences of marine anthropogenic noise on coral reefs, both during the day and at night.
  • How fish use underwater soundscapes.
  • Using underwater sound to aid marine conservation efforts.
  • The impacts of the degredation of coral reef marine noise
  • Using underwater speakers to make reefs louder.
  • The bigger picture aspects of working in a research group.
  • What got you into marine biology?

 


 

Resources:

 


 

Episode and show notes produced by Ben Toulson and Katie Finnimore.

Check out other episodes of the podcast here.

You can subscribe on most podcast apps, if you’re feeling kind please leave us a review!

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Emily Easman or visit our website!

 

 

MSc Graduate In Focus: Zara Botterell

This year we are launching two new MSc courses in Marine Environmental Management and 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 conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Zara Botterell, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2015) and now a PhD student investigating microplastic pollution and zooplankton at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the University of Essex!

Hi Zara! First off, why did you choose to study at the University of Exeter?

I’ve chosen to study at the University of Exeter twice; to begin with I did my BSc at the Streatham Campus. I was looking to do a broad based biological sciences degree and the course there had a little bit of everything. This was a big draw for me as I didn’t really know what I was interested in the most and didn’t want to specialize too early. The campus was also beautiful, with plenty of green space, in a beautiful city.

Throughout my undergraduate degree I’d naturally gravitated towards ecology, conservation and marine biology and I really wanted to continue with an MSc in these subject areas. My mum actually spotted the MSc Conservation and Biodiversity course and after a quick read I knew it was exactly what I’d like to do. Finances are also big consideration and after some further research I realised that at the time I was also eligible to apply for a scholarship, which I was successful in obtaining.

Immediately after completing my MSc I began a graduate role at the Penryn Campus as a PA and research assistant within the Centre for Ecology and Conservation. After working there for nearly 2 years I was successful in gaining a PhD scholarship at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and University of Essex.

What did you enjoy most about studying your MSc with us at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus?

The campus is beautiful, with lots of green spaces and being so close to the coast it is perfect for anyone who loves the outdoors and nature.

Everyone in the department was friendly and approachable, where every success of staff and students was celebrated. The field trips were incredible, well planned and thought through to give us a great experience.

I loved the relaxed and friendly environment in Penryn, the campus was beautiful in every season and there are lots of places to explore nearby.

What skills and experiences from the MSc have been most useful in your career?

During my MSc I learnt many transferable skills such as statistical analysis, science communication and developing my academic writing which have been essential to my PhD. I have also been able to build upon my fieldwork experience and public speaking skills which I first developed during my time at Penryn.

The MSc gave me crucial experience in planning and implementing fieldwork and a great foundation knowledge of using the statistical software R and GIS mapping software which I have since built upon. Time management and organization has been key in my PhD. The variety of modules with different deadlines, different types of work i.e. fieldwork, written assignments meant that I had a lot to keep track of, however this was a great experience for my PhD.

Finally, why did you choose your career path and do you have any advice for those looking to pursue something similar?

My advice for anyone who would like to do a PhD would be to work hard, make the most of any opportunities and get experience doing lots of different things. When it comes to applying for a PhD, whilst subject and location are important, take the time to have a chat with your potential supervisors to see how you get on. For 3-4 years they’ll be supporting and guiding you through your PhD and will be integral to your development, experiences, success and of course enjoyment!

Work hard, be organized, do your best and enjoy! Ensure you have a routine and take quality time off.

Any advice for anyone thinking of applying to the University of Exeter?

Apply, you haven’t got anything to lose!

Thanks Zara!

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