Thursday, 23 August 2012

EMS Project: Mapping bird distribution.

I feel like I have completely abandoned this blog - I haven't, I've just had my mind in other places (i.e. stuck in ArcGIS, my old pal) and having a little bit of me time with my other blog. I've had a lot of things on my mind and, without wanting to clog up this blog or my main Twitter account (RachLinaker) with personal-rubbish, I put it onto my other. Now, everything is all right in the world - woohoo.

So, of late I have been inputting the reams and reams of data collected by those lovely people of the EMS management team (massive thanks to you!) and looking at the survey sheets that go alongside them to gauge where abouts on the shore the birds were recorded from. It has been one heck of a task and one that took much longer than anticipated, as such I am now crying out for 'the fear' to hit me. Come on... Please! Anyway, I'm finally done - hurrah.

Messy messy.
Things were looking a little messy (trust me, when you're playing around with hundreds of points, the little colourful balls on the page do resemble a child's birthday party... I've said that one before) so I wanted to play around with the shapefiles and have them represent high and low tide, great, except some sides were only sampled and high or low. I scrapped that idea and hopefully, once I've done the statistics, this will back it up (I've saved the new layers just in case there is a significant difference between either numbers or activity patterns - probably a little difficult to do with a relatively small sample size). Instead, I opted to divide the counts up as to whether they were feeding or roosting - this should give an idea of what areas of each site are used more readily by each species and give an idea of these little hotspots so to speak. Looking back, this is exactly why the mapping was done in the first place so that's good. I've come across a few bumps along the way unfortunately, one being that for some sites, activity just was not recorded. Others, for example with Bran Sands in particular, multiple birds were noted on the survey sheets but numbers hadn't been noted beside them so it may be a little skewed. Also, I've had to scrap the "end count" data with regards to the mapping - there were just too many that either weren't counted or activity was accounted for or anything like that. Not like anybody cares about this but it's a nice note for me at least! 

I still need to sort out the legend somewhat. I've probably made things very difficult for myself, but essentially the legend is only showing the size classes used for the map - fine - except I've made two separate layer files so that I can show both Feeding and Roosting birds, and then only select one or the other - now GIS is creating duplicate birds on the legend... I think I may have to manually manipulate it since my brain is officially dead tonight.

What I need you to do is imagine that the legend looks awfully pretty. I think I'm going to have another play around and set it out on portrait paper, not landscape, and then at least the legend can go down vertically on the right. At least you can see that certain species do prefer certain areas of the habitat... 

I'm going to have a google around and see about placing two different maps on the same page. There must be a way of doing it and I'm just being a little bit blind.

More to come! 

Rachel, xo

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

EMS Project: Maps galore

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been working ridiculously hard with my old pal GIS trying to formulate some maps and whatnot for the EMS project I am currently working on. Thus far I have created a few maps with general species abundances (it looks very messy and almost looked like a child's birthday party, i.e. with a lot of brightly coloured 'balloons' all over the shop).

AVERAGE bird abundances and distribution per site, there are six.
N.B. Legend not present due to crazy amount of data. It needed messing with.
Pushing that aside (for now), I decided to have a look at recreational activities both from the Excel spreadsheet and the photocopied annotated survey sheets so I could gauge approximate distribution of activity per site. Again, I've done this using the large 1:50,000 OS map to look at the generalised picture rather than each localised site...

That's better with a legend.
I can use these shapefiles for the localised maps since they're pretty much in the right locations anyway. I may have to have a fiddle around with some mind. I was also thinking of splitting up the EMS activity maps into two - shore-based recreational activities and water-based recreational activities. Then there would have to be one for fishing/harvesting/collecting since there are a few sea coal collectors, bait diggers, anglers [well, one] etc.

We'll see.

I need to create the shapefiles now for bird counts at the start and the end of each survey and to locate these on the localised maps. Then, somehow, I need to map on recreational disturbance. I'm sure I can fathom this out... There's a clever person hiding somewhere inside...

Saturday, 4 August 2012

EMS project: Becoming reacquainted with my friend GIS.

I can't tell you how long I've been wanting to start a little 'diary' of my analytical project that is currently underway. Many moons ago [it seems!] I stated that I had to do a research project as required by my MSc and this was to be done with an external organisation. As I've mentioned a fair few times, I chose to do mine with the EMS management team, specifically working with INCA, Natural England, and the RSPB. I've been officially working on the project for a month now though, unfortunately, have been getting nowhere. I had to wait for data to be sent, I had issues installing my good friend ArcGIS onto my laptop (I even bought myself a new laptop for this purpose), and then there was the issue of me actually becoming reacquainted with the programme. Phew!

My main point of contact for the project has been Maeve, the current EMS project officer and she's brilliant. I think she's received many e-mails/texts/rambles fuelled by frustration, coffee, and on one occasion beer, asking for advice on how to get the data into GIS. I was just not having a good time with it. Essentially I need to create separate shapefiles for each species, both at the start and the end of the bird count surveys. This way I can map abundances. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the end counts just yet, I think that'll be another "please give me some advice" e-mail, but at present I was just using the 'average' values to get a general idea of the prevalence of bird species at each of the six sites (Hartlepool North Sands, North Gare, South Gare, Redcar Rocks, Seaton Snook, and Bran Sands). Then, alongside this, I'm going to display their likely activity (either feeding or roosting) based on the sum of averages. It gets a little complicated so it's just going to be as a % representation (I think, I'll see how it goes).

The other wall that I hit was to do with getting this data actually into GIS. Those who know me, I'm always trying to better what I've done. I'm never happy with it - perfectionism, it's a blessing and a curse at the same time. Anyway, the way that the previous EMS officer, Katherine, had input the data was manually, inserting each value into each field one by one. Given that I am playing with what, about 600 points per species (if you consider that there are about 10 fields per value as well) I wasn't too happy with manually inputting this data, one by one. Cue a lot of googling and e-mailing GIS 'experts' to try and see whether I could do this. The only solution I could think of was saving a spreadsheet as a database (thank goodness for Open Office, Microsoft Office doesn't do the database extension anymore) and importing this into GIS via the XY (coordinates). The data I had been given didn't have coordinates, and that is why the data had previously been input manually so that each record could be placed where it needed to be on the map. 

A few days of wanting to throw my laptop out of the window, I had a solution. I grabbed the XY coordinates off GIS for each of the six sites, assigned them to the appropriate values, and then imported the data in and just smushed around the values myself. Looking back I probably should have done this first off but clearly my noggin didn't want to cooperate. 


As a little bit of GIS-practice, I wanted to recreate the European Marine Site (EMS)/ Special Protection Area (SPA)  boundary map that I had found. I gathered the SPA data from the JNCC website, opened up my two 1:50,000 OS maps downloaded off Digimap and had a play around. I couldn't find any EMS GIS data and I didn't fancy recreating the polygon shapes myself so I made a duplicate SPA-boundary file and edited the vertices to delete any that weren't part of the EMS. It all sounds very complicated but I knew what I was doing. Threw on a title, a legend, a North arrow, and a scale bar and voila. My first little map produced for a while. 

Simple, but it made me very happy.
So, now that I've had a really good play around with this and that (pressing far too many buttons for my liking and probably wrecking havoc to the data - only messing, I know what I'm doing!) I feel like I at least have a little bit of knowledge and confidence that I can work with the data. It just took a little while to get going, that's all.

I guess this kind of reiterates that old mantra, "never give up". It's true, you'll get there in the end. 

Friday, 3 August 2012

Marine Litter: The time has come to clean up our act.

Earlier this year, the Marine Conservation Society (alongside retailer Marks & Spencers) organised their first ever Big Beach Clean Up. Over 6,000 volunteers got involved and lent a helping hand in cleaning up 100 beaches and waterways across the UK. The amount of effort and cooperation was fantastic and everyone should be so proud of themselves. I was supposed to be one of those volunteers at the Bridlington Beach Clean but I had far too much on (with regards to university work) and, after taking a weekend out already, I just couldn't afford the time off. Shockingly, over 3,200 bin bags of rubbish were collected in total. This amounted to in excess of 11,500kg! That's an absolutely disgusting amount of waste found. The final report devised by the MCS can be seen here (with some lovely photos, too!)

One of the bags from Cramond clean up - Image from
From the report, the MCS identified a few main key components of the rubbish, these included:
  • Plastic parts
  • Glass
  • Consumer rubbish (i.e. crisp packets, lolly sticks)
  • Caps and lids
  • String, cord, cloth, and string.
  • Polystyrene
  • Fishing line
  • Cigarette butts
What they found hasn't surprised me in the slightest - I've wandered along beaches before, frequently kicking at old beer cans (obviously picking them up afterwards), bottle tops, and the amount of cigarette butts I've seen is just repulsive... Smokers, the beach is not your ashtray. In fact, there are numerous campaigns about by the MCS or Surfers Against Sewage that are trying to stop this... I came across one of the SAS campaigns and it did make me giggle. Very effective if I might add!

No butts on the beach!
As human population and waste levels explode, the oceans which cover 71% of the Earth's surface are in grave danger of becoming what can only be described as 'plastic soup' . Plastics have been part of our everyday lives for over 50 years now. Compared to glass or metals they are much cheaper to produced in the masses and tend to be more durable. As such, plastics have replaced much of these materials and, unfortunately, constitute a large proportion of the marine litter problem. Scientists have revealed that up to 80% of the waste found on the coast, ocean surface or seabed is plastic. That's a shocking amount, however considering that the annual plastic production (globally) has been estimated to be in excess of 250 million tonnes (!!) this figure does not seem so shocking - especially when Greenpeace suggested than up to 10% of these end up on our oceans. Whilst it is near impossible for plastics to be eliminated entirely, there are a series of methods that can help mitigate this problem.
Image by Lindsey Hoshaw              
As I am sure you are all aware, the oceans are not closed systems and are all connected by currents; they just do not represent a static environment in the slightest. This means that point sources of marine debris often result in the mass movement elsewhere, carried by these currents. Where several currents meet, their convergence zone, marine debris often accumulates in large patches, the largest of which known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" (see image above). The collision of four ocean currents creates a vortex that draws in the litter and keeps it contained in these gyres. There's a lot more information about these gyres on the 5Gyres website, a non-governmental organisation pledging to help clean up this problem!
As shown by the list posted above, the common culprit of the marine debris problem is that of the macroplastic (e.g. plastic bags!), however plastics that appear naked to the human eye are also a huge problem. Small plastics less than 5mm in diameter are referred to as microplastics and are becoming a bit of an issue within the marine realm. I've been meaning to post this blog post for sometime now after such good feedback from one on my other 'project' - LiveFoodLove. Earlier in the month I wrote up a little piece  ("To scrub, or not to scrub") about the issues of plastics present in cosmetic products, namely facial and body scrubs. A lot of people seemed quite unaware of their potential danger and I guess, from their point of view, it's very easy to forget about those little things we just cannot see.
Of course, the cosmetic industry is not to blame entirely for microplastics can have various other entry routes. One interesting example that I noted an article I wrote (on this subject, actually) was to do with the release of microplastics from our clothes. A group of researchers (Browne et al. 2011) tested waters from shoreline habitats around the world, noting that the most common polymers consisted of polyester, arcylic, and nylon (polyamides) fibres - this links them back to synthetic clothes. Shockingly, in excess of 1,900 of these microplastic fibres can be released into wastewater from the laundering of a single synthetic item. Considering that some people do two loads a day (of course family-size dependent) this is an alarming amount. Living in a house of six (granted, poor students who need to pay the bills) the washing machine is on at least once or twice a day. Imagine that we have, say, 4 items per wash that are synthetic (figure plucked out of my head, completely inaccurate) and every day we are doing two loads. Per week we have (in theory) released 106,400 fibres into the environment. That is one household.

Compared to their larger older brothers, the macroplastics, microplastics are a bit like the evil unknown at the moment because no one really understands what direct effect they can have on the marine environment, particularly at ecosystem level. Baseline data is often difficult to collect as you can imagine - most of these little plastics are less than 1mm in length and, as such, cannot be tallied in a survey from a boat. There persistence in the marine environment has therefore been assessed by other means, such as via CPRs. Continuous Plankton Recorders (not cardiopulmonary resuscitation...) can be deployed from merchant vessels and towed during a normal day-to-day sail. Via this method, collaborative work between SAHFOS (Sir Alistair Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science) and the University of Plymouth (where I did my undergraduate - hurrah) has shown that there has been a significant increase in the amount of microplastics present over the last 40 years.

Marine litter has the potential to cause a myriad of problems for marine ecosystems. Plastics are likely to cause problems associated with:
  • Facilitating the movement of alien species, or
  • Entanglement of marine species, or
  • Ingestion of the plastics.

Non-indigenous species
In July 2009, Murray Gregory from the University of Auckland published a study in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B assessing the environmental implications and dangers posed from marine litter in our oceans. One of the main concerns that he highlighted was the potential for individuals to ‘hitch-hike’ on floating marine debris therefore moving them elsewhere into areas previously inaccessible. This movement of ‘alien species’ can have serious detrimental effects of resident populations and may drive species’ extinctions. In remote areas such as the tropical islands of Oceania or the sub-Antarctic islands, resident species may be unique to that area and as such warrant serious consideration for their protection.

Image source: Greenpeace
Over 100,000 of marine mammals die annually due to either ingestion or entanglement of marine debris, and considering that this figure only applied to the North Pacific Ocean, it is expected that the global marine mammal mortalities associated with marine litter is to substantially exceed this figure. Entanglement is a serious problem for species living amongst areas of high marine litter, particularly when composed of derelict fishing gear (such as long-lines or drift nets), synthetic ropes or packing bands.

Image source: NOAA
Although there are a number of marine species affected marine mammals, who, being naturally curious and playful, are attracted to floating debris and so are most at risk. Fur seal pups, for example, are highly vulnerable, resulting in a drawn-out death sentence. The collar of marine debris tightens as the seal grows, constricting arteries and strangling the animal. The death of marine mammals at such a young age can have long-term effects on population stability and, as such, may hinder population recoveries. It is expected that with an increase in plastic pollution there will be a quickening in population decline of the northern sea lion, northern fur seal, and endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

The hard truth; Albatross chicks are fed plastic particles
mistaken for food and as a result die from starvation, suffocation
or toxicity. (Image source: Chris Jordan).
  Marine litter can be small and easily mistaken for food and so ingestion of marine litter is quite a common problem amongst marine species. Ingestion causes a magnitude of problems ranging from:
  • Sub-lethal: Decline in feeding resulting in starvation and stunted growth rate due to malnutrition.
  • Lethal: intestinal or oesophageal obstruction.

The relative abundance of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific Ocean reveals shocking results. In a study in 2001, on average 330,000 pieces were found per square kilometre with a max count of nearly one million. This is likely to affect a number of organisms based on their feeding habits. Seabirds, filter-feeders, and other species that feed within the ocean’s surface layers are likely to be affected. Laysan albatross chicks of the Midway Atoll (Northern Hawaiian Islands) are severely affected; of the 500,000 individuals born annually 200,000 die as a result of the debris accumulation from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

This issue is hardly undocumented with various campaigns flying around to try and educate the plastic user about the problems of inappropriate plastic disposal. My favourite (in a morbid way, I mean it is more effective) is that by the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles (MEDASSET). I remember posting this up on Facebook a fair few months ago and a fair few of my friends did not even notice the plastic bag, If they can't even notice it then how do you expect a turtle to? In fact, a study published in 2010 revealed that one in three sea turtles found stranded or dead in the Adriatic Sea had debris (ropes, plastic and long-lines) present in their gastrointestinal tract.

As well as the ingestion of macroplastics, the ingestion of microplastics is a growing concern given their tendency to absorb Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs. The most common POPs include PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls), DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichlorethane), and BPA (Bisphenol A). Various adverse health effects have been documented with regards to these, ranging from effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and the endocrine (hormone) system. DDT, for example, can induce what is referred to as imposex (development of male sex characteristics) in dogwhelks, whilst BPA mimics oestrogen causing problems to both fish and humans. POPs accumulate in the animal's fatty tissue and, with this in mind, apex predators of the ocean food chain tend to show the highest levels.

You are what you eat.
In the UK alone we are estimated to consume over 380,000 tonnes of seafood per year. Given what I have just told you about POP accummulation and such, seafood consumption includes toxic and plastics remains too. The Nephrops (Scampi) fishery, a commerically important fishery within UK waters (bringing in about £95.8 million per year), was studied in 2011 for plastic remains. Over 83% of Nephrops caught contained little indigestible plastic fibres.

The image on the right (source: is a fantastic pictorial of the marine debris problem, relating it back to human consumption. Just to highlight some key points from it:
  • Humans consume, on average, 36lbs of seafood per person per year.
  • The Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains an estimated 3.5 million tonnes of rubbish.  
  • 51 billion bottles are used (yearly) in the U.S. alone, only 1 in 5 are recycled. 
  • 260 known species eat non-biodegradable plastic materials (of course not out of choice, it is mistaken for food!)
  • Some of these fish are eaten by other fish, the contamination is therefore biomagnified up the food web.

I understand that telling the ever-increasing population that they all have to ditch their synthetic clothes and reduce their weekly washing amounts is an unlikely scenario (and would most likely result in me being a very unpopular person). Being a little more careful about what we buy - cosmetics especially - will help substantially with the microplastic issue. Reducing macroplastic prevalence is much easier (easier said than done mind you), but make a few simple changes and you're on your way to helping the environment.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
It is imperative that there is a continuation in these 'three Rs'. This should reduce the amount of waste discarded within the environment, a lot of which ends up in our oceans. The UK effort for the recycling programme has improved substantially over the years, so let’s continue our efforts. Reducing the amount of waste discarded is easy, opt for a re-usable cloth bag for groceries and only drink beverages in glass bottles or buy items with very limited packaging.  If you DO use a shopping bag for whatever reason, do reuse it. We actually have a drawer in the kitchen stuffed full of shopping bags. They will always be used for for rubbish and never thrown away AS rubbish.
For marine debris that has washed up on our coasts, the solution is simple and requires very little physical effort. Beachwatch, MCS' coastal environmental initiative, aims to involve local people and communities that want to help clean up the shore. They organise various big beach clean ups (as aforementioned) so check out when the next one is and get involved. Even if you are not part of a formal clean-up programme, next time you’re at the beach take a bag and pick up some of the rubbish yourself.
Every little helps!

Friday, 13 July 2012

Middlesbrough - Meeting the EMS management team.

Wow, what a fantastic day yesterday was and, to be perfectly honest, I was completely bricking it. Me, meeting new people, talking about something I'm not all 100% sure on... It's normally a recipe for disaster but hey, maybe I'm changing... For the good.

I went to Middlesbrough to meet with the new EMS project officer, Maeve, to discuss the direction of my project placement with Natural England/ INCA/ RSPB and meet with the EMS management team for a meeting. Can you see why I was nervous?!

After a pretty hectic morning (early start/ delays at the train station and a not-so-brilliant coffee) I arrived in Middlesbrough, hopped in Maeve's car and after a quick introduction/ hellos we were on our way towards the INCA offices on the Wilton International site. As with all industrial sites (especially those that concern chemicals - eep), an induction had to be done which in involved watching a fabulous little video telling me about the various alarms that can go off. Now, which one means run and which one means take cover/ block all windows?! I guess I won't be too helpful in an emergency then...

After the induction and a quick photo I was presented with my day-pass (what a shame, I had to hand it back in at the end of the day), and my little card that says I've watched the video - hurrah! Now I mustn't lose it ;-) We had a drive round to the INCA offices where I met two of the team; Robert, one of the conservation officers who made me a lovely cup of tea (thank you!) and the director, Bob who I had heard a lot about. As there had been an issue with health and safety (long story and not really that interesting so I won't bore you with it). We went over the risk assessments, signed some documents and went over a few things to pass onto my York-based supervisor, and then left to return back to the computer to go over the project.


I'm really excited to get stuck in now, especially since I kind of know what I'm doing... Instead of producing two reports at the end (one for the university and one for the company), I'm producing one main report for the university and submitting it to the company also, and then just making up a series of recommendations in a separate non-scientific report for them - that works out better since I'd seen an example report and it was a good 100 pages long. I know a majority of those were from figures and tables (as mine would be in a way) but 100 was a little excessive. Anyway, from my terms of reference that I devised last week (and I'm actually pretty proud of it) we've agreed on some main objectives:-

  1. Produce a map highlighting hotspots of bird usage (both abundance and behaviour - foraging or roosting).
  2. Produce a map highlighting recreational activities
  3. Map bird disturbance from each individual site (6 sites in total) with respect to the main anthropogenic recreational activities which will indicate problem areas.
 Statistical analyses (using R project)
  1. Which anthropogenic causes the most disturbance to birds
  2. Does anthropogenic disturbance appear to affect bird numbers/community composition and/or bird distribution at particular sites.
  3. Do disturbance levels differ with tide height, habitat type and day of the week (latter may not be included, it depends on the data set).
  4. At what times are recreational activities most apparent?
Essentially the main aim is to produce a series of site-specific recommendations with regards to the results - i.e. how are species effected, what are the grounds utilised for (with respect to both bird activity and human activity). I can also pinpoint which parts of the data collection need refining for statistical analysis - i.e. consistency - so that the methodology can be updated in the future.

Anyway, the EMS meeting was starting at 2pm and so we left around 1pm for the RSPB centre in Saltholme. I really liked it there despite the mass of industry around it. It was so very odd that the birdlife in this reserve can flourish with so much going on around it. Peculiar, but interesting.

The visitor centre, image from

I had a little giggle as we walked up to the centre for whoever designed the signage had a sense of humour. It isn't my photo (I forgot to take one!) but it has definitely left an imprint on my mind (and hopefully other's too). I think this method of making a negative more positive is really effective at getting people to listen and pay attention.

Image by Lepista [Flickr]
 The meeting was an eye opener and I'm so very happy that I went a long to it and can't wait for the next one in September (which I am contributing to, eek). There were various representatives from different companies there. Off the top of my head there was:
  • Natural England
  • INCA
  • RSPB
  • MMO
  • (Eastern?) IFCAs 
  • Environment Agency
  • PD Ports
It was really interesting to hear various projects being undertaken and the problems being faced or their progress. It has made me realise that there really isn't a simple one-size-fits-all solution (which I guess I knew anyway, but this has just verified it completely) and that the issues surrounding environmental management (of any ecosystem) are so multi-faceted that they require input from all of the major key players. All of them. Without this communication (and appropriate funding unfortunately), it's unlikely that there will be any success in the long-term.

This whole experience, meeting people from various companies, having a little input (well, talking about the project and hearing recommendations), having people genuinely interested in what's going on (and wanting information prior to the final report) has made me really happy that I've chosen this project. It has also made me realise that this is definitely the path I want to take, integrating it with the research side of things and liaising with contacts to attempt to come up with the perfect solution.

That concludes my day anyway, and now I need to go and completely rehash this CV and formulate some fantastic application for the perfect job in September (for me, anyway). I just hope that they see a little sparkle and go, "she's the girl for us".

Fingers crossed! 

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Post-dissertation relaxation, shark tagging & interviews!

I can only apologise for how dreadful I have been with updating but, alas, my thesis came first. Many hours of writing, a fair few tears, a few manic moments, a lot of procrastination (I'm a pro, don't you know?) and a few moody Rach's (okay, MANY...) and my thesis is done. Finito. FINISHED.

"Skating towards a sustainable future" - Fabulous title credit to my supervisor, Dr Bryce Beukers-Stewart,
I'm not entirely pleased with it, I don't think it was my best but given the circumstances I think I did pretty damn well and, at the end of the day, I can say I tried my hardest. I think I took a little bit of a wrong turn somewhere but it's all there, it's all handed in and there's nothing I can do about it now.

Regarding the presentations (that I was awfully nervous about) I did so well! It was worth 25% of my dissertation mark so, 10 credits. I got 73% ! I'm actually a little shocked. I stood up there and wanted to bolt, either through the door or out of that window, so how I managed to get that good of a mark I have no idea.

I also have a little more good news the other day. The exams that we sat those few weeks ago, those exams that I also thought I did dreadful in... well... I also did pretty damn well in: 72, 73 and 74%! That sets me in a really good place to obtain my distinction. All I can hope is that I can manage 70% in my thesis paper and the project placement which I am due to start soon.

So, where does it leave me? I'm currently in Scotland enjoying some well needed R&R but as soon as I get back I'm going to start on my project. I need to write a Terms of Reference up for Natural England (in the process of doing) and also a risk assessment that needs to be sent back to my university. That's nearly completed, I just need to give an overview of what my project entails but as I'll be doing that for the TOR I'll do them both at the same time. I haven't got anymore information on that just yet, although I did buy myself a brand spanking new laptop for my birthday so that I could work GIS on it.

One thing that I am very much looking forward to is a shark tagging trip in August. I was casually just browsing through Twitter and noticed that one of my followers was advertising a shark tagging trip from Liverpool and I couldn't help but jump at the chance. Matt's blog is here! For £45 we're going out for a day, catching mackerel for bait and catching Tope for tagging. I'm booked in for the 16th and I really can't wait.
Tope, image by Davy Holt

Tope, Galeorhinus galeus, is a slender shark that can grow up to about 190cm long and is widely distributed along the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Like most elasmobranchs they have a late age at maturity and low fecundity - this species tends to mature at around 12 years of age and produces about 20 pups ever 2-3 years, As such, they are protected under the Tope (Prohibition of Fishing Order) instigated in 2008. This Order prohibits the fishing of Tope other than by rode and line, and if Tope are taken on board the live-weight must not exceed 45kg per day. 

The tagging of these species helps to reveal information on spatial distributions - their long-term movements, migrations, site fidelity etc. I'm really excited to be apart of this and I think it would be a perfect opportunity to learn some new skills (and new friends of course). 

On top of this I've been asked to be interviewed and photographed for the Postgraduate "You@York" portal which will be showcased at the PG Admissions Forum. I'm quite excited for this (albeit a little nervous) a) I'd never done anything like this before and b) I think it would be great for boosting my confidence (... Plus I get to make myself look pretty for the photos!)

Everything seems to be looking up. The stress is off re: the dissertation but I know the heat is now on for that final push. I'm determined to do it, I'm determined to do well and I know, with a bit of effort (and hopefully less tears and more laughter), I can do it!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Dissertation presentations, oh the stress.

Oh my goodness me, these past few weeks have been hectic and I've not really had much time to myself to write anything in this here blog. I've also started up another blog (completely irrelevant to marine biology but more my life, dreams, food (lots of it) and potential future projects) >> Love travel. Love food. Love life.

So I'm in the midst of my dissertation. I've actually just come back from the first day of presentations, I was presenting last and let me tell you that me and public speaking really don't work very well. I honestly felt like I was about to jump out of that window had my legs not turned to complete jelly. I need to get over this, but the nerves just kick in, my throat goes all dry, my heat rate goes about 1000 bpm and then I feel like I can't actually construct a sensible sentence. Oh well. It went okay I guess. I rambled for the first few slides and then felt that I really got into it (just about). I did learn a few things about my actual study though so that's reassuring.

I do also realise that I have to practically re-write and re-do my dissertation (as it stands at the moment anyway). It shouldn't take too long to rectify and I can add in some cracking information about the Bristol Channel. Anyway, I can't reveal all just yet... I'm going to make this an amazing paper, just you wait :)

Back on hiatus again... For now anyway. My dissertation is due in on the 25th (my birthday - la la) so I should try and do an update near then.

Au revoir! 

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Marine Protected Areas ~ Pleasing both conservational and fishing perspectives.

So here I am, yet again, blogging my revision notes in sheer desperation that something will stick in my mind. All I want to do is sit outside and soak up the sun’s rays with a beer (or Pimms) in hand, my friends, my man and some happy summer music. I’ve tried to sit outside and revise, of course I have, but there’s something so very tiring about having the sun on your head all day. Alas, I’ve moved inside… Again.

What have I got in store today then? I’m still on Protected Areas (my exam is tomorrow, oh I need a miracle) and whilst I know I could probably write an okay answer (as in, I’ll be able to muster up some information at least), none of the information that I’m trying to absorb is actually going in.

I’m fairly confident that a question will arise to do with the design of protected areas (or maybe the allocation) and what factors need to be considered in this process. There’s bound to be something although a question didn’t crop up on last year’s exam. I wonder. I made a note on the lecture material that I swore the lecturer had said there is bound to be a question on the design process so, if there isn’t, I’m probably screwed. Anyway…

(Image sourced from:

Marine Protected Areas ~ Pleasing both conservational and fishing perspectives.

One of the biggest worries concerning conservation managers is probably how big a protected area needs to be. Of course, from a purely conservational approach you’d expect “as big as possible” which is essentially to backing perspective for Pew Environmental Group (and other such foundations). Based on the Species-Area relationship, a larger area of land (or sea) will encompass a larger proportion of species and thus would be the best provider of conservation for meeting those conservation targets set. Concurrent to this, a larger area of protection is likely to encompass great habitat heterogeneity which studies have established has a positive effect on species richness. All in all, it seems like the better option doesn’t it? Have a large protected area and you run a greater chance of meeting those targets.

Unfortunately, as I’m sure you are aware from my last blog post, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Yes larger areas can support more species and have greater habitat diversity, but what about those socio-economic factors that are likely to limit the maximum size extent of these areas. Stakeholder support is a huge element of designing and implementing protected areas that cannot be ignored, without their support (either through economic backing or compliance) the viability of protected areas is likely to fall through. Fishermen, for example, solely depend on fish stocks and the harvesting of such for their well-being. Establishing a marine reserve, a protected area that does not permit any fishing activity whatsoever, therefore displaces these fishermen into alternate areas or preventing them from reaping the benefits of decent fish aggregations. Unless you combine both conservation and fisheries management to create a protected area that makes both parties happy, you’re going to get very little support from these fishermen which can simply reduce the area’s effectiveness due to lack of compliance.

The benefits of marine reserves on adjacent fishing grounds has already been well established through various studies; an increase in biomass, abundance, density, size and species richness is expected with reserves. Halpern assessed the extent these in detail using a myriad of studies in 2003; there was an average increase in abundance by 63%, size by 80%, biomass (a greater indicator of species recovery) by 90% and species richness by 59%. This is excellent news for both conservational and fishery objectives. It is generally well-accepted trait that larger fish have a greater fecundity and produce more eggs and engage in more reproductive activities. A 10kg red snapper, for example, produces 20-fold more eggs than, say, 10 individuals weighing 1kg each. This pattern of increased fecundity has been exhibited in Mombasa Marine National Park, Kenya (paper by Rodwell et al. 2002) with a greater biomass of reproductive individuals within the reserve boundaries.

So, what does this mean for the fishermen? It means they can obtain much greater catches just outside of the boundary therefore everyone is happy. This is termed the spillover effect, whereby the benefits observed within the reserve ‘spill-over’ into adjacent waters, either by the movement of juveniles and adults to external waters or the export of pelagic eggs and larvae. In Mombasa fish traps close to the marine reserve boundaries exhibited a 3X greater increase in catch (despite the greater trap density). A similar story also occurred in St Lucia! The downside to this is it does take a while for the benefits to be seen, as with anything. Fishermen, like politicians, want their results there and then and I don’t blame them, at the end of the day their jobs are affected. It largely depends on the extent of damage that areas has endured, but good responses (i.e. doubled or tripled populations) can be expected within 3-5 years.

Going back to what was said earlier about size, the extent of the spillover effect is proportionate to the edge of the protected area. The probability of fish leaving the given reserve is all dependent on the amount of ‘edge’ the reserve has. So, whilst larger reserves are much better from a conservational perspective, from a fishing perspective they offer very little (since the chance of a fish leaving the area is much slimmer) and less likely to be supported. What constitutes as ‘too large’ depends on the mobility of the species within the reserve and also the local oceanographic conditions (i.e. current speed and habitat type will contribute to the extent of a species’ propagule dispersal abilities).

It’s a difficulty faced by those who design protected areas. The initial ‘protect or don’t protect’ is hindered by a multitude of other factors that may cross one of the areas proposed off of the list. Protecting areas that are already heavily impacted by humans, or areas that are consistently affected by natural disasters means that it is likely these effects are going to infiltrate the reserve boundaries. If so, then a much larger reserve is required otherwise species extinctions and extirpations are likely to occur. This then runs the risk of placing all your eggs into one basket – what happens when the whole reserve is affected by an external threat? What then?

Even after the protected area has been implemented, boundaries have been decided and stakeholders are on board, who is going to manage the area? Is it small enough to be managed by the local population – this has proven to be useful in various studies, but when the issues become too severe it requires regional or even global management, but is this to be from centralised governments or from non-governmental organisations? It is nigh impossible to choose a strategy that can fit every scenario because, in simple terms, one size does not fit all.

I think I’ve gone off on one there, but hopefully it is of some use to those who are interested and plus, it serves me well for my exams. I just now hope that a question relating to this comes up!

References for those papers cited:

Rodwell, L. D., Barbier, E. B., Roberts, C. M. and McClanahan, T. R. (2002) A bioeconomic analysis of tropical marine reserves-fishery linkages : Mombasa Marine National Park. Natural Resource Modeling, 15, 183-197.

Halpern, B. (2003) The impact of marine reserves: Do reserves work and does reserve size matter? Ecological Applications, 13, 117-137.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Protected Areas: Is bigger really better?

I'm in the midst of my revision for the exams lurking around the corner (quite literally, I have one on Thursday, one on Monday and then one on Wednesday. I am in no way prepared for the last one but I'm getting there with the others). I'm just about to start looking over my coursework for this module, "Protected Areas: Is bigger really better?" and thought, what better way to inject the information I had understood back into my brain than to educate those who might not really understand the predicament that managers face.

Why is protection needed?
Through a combination of habitat modification, non-indigenous species introductions and direct exploitation, humans have undoubtedly placed an excess amount of pressure on the Earth, and as such the protection of these affected areas is the foundation for all biological conservation strategies. A protected area (PA) is defined as being “an area of land and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means” (IUCN 1994). Protected areas (PAs) aim to alleviate the anthropogenic pressures mentioned above. As a result, it is imperative that areas are effectively conserved, protected and managed if we are to meet the demands of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which intends to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2020.


Although there has been an increase in the number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) globally, the ocean is still poorly represented when managing conservation priorities. Only about 1.17% of the world’s oceans are protected with approximately 6,800 designated MPAs. Land-based PAs however are expected to cover 13% of the Earth’s surface with over 120,000 designated PAs.

PA development
The development of PAs has, in recent years, taken a “no-take is best” and “bigger is better” stance, since the fundamental purpose of a PA is to preserve biodiversity. The Global Ocean Legacy programme of the Pew Environmental Group has largely driven the expansion of MPAs following their aims to establish a coherent protection network, something that has been highlighted as being highly important. Very large terrestrial PAs have typically aimed to conserve wilderness which unfortunately do not necessarily overlap with high priority areas. These areas biased towards lower quality lands and tend to have very little economic worth to humans.

Is bigger better? The SLOSS debate.
Based on the theory of island biogeography (MacArthur & Wilson 1967), an increase in size coincides with  an increase in species diversity and richness. These assumptions have been used to set baseline targets for conservation and are as such an integral part of the PA planning process. Early work suggested that larger PAs would be more beneficial to protecting biodiversity since they support larger species numbers, however since their establishment there has been an ongoing debate on the veracity of this. This is the 'SLOSS debate' (Single Large or Several Small). The outcome of the debate basically states that the "which is best" scenario largely depends on the objectives of the protected area, essentially no coherent conclusion was made!

An interesting point made was the potential for a population to recover after a catastrophe. Habitat fragmentation remains as one of the biggest threats to biological diversity since it increases the edge effect, a phenomenon whereby population densities tend to decline from the core to the peripheral habitat (or edge) due to the infiltration of human activity or natural threats which can hinder these populations. The smaller the population is, the more 'at risk' it is from extinction, however several small 'islands' of protection (depending on the extent of their connectivity) will have some level of interaction. These can act as reserve populations and help to repopulate an area. Very large protected areas (vLPAs) are expected to be so large that the risk of population extinction is very slim.

vLPAs and fisheries management
Whilst I am a (or aspiring to be at least) marine biologist maybe I should relate this whole thing to fisheries management and whether vLPAs are beneficial in this instance. As discussed by Roberts et al. (2001) it is highly unlikely that vLPAs would benefit fisheries as much as intermediate sizes. Lack of financial backing or stakeholder support would deem the implementation of these sites near impossible. Through the eyes of an eager fisherman, some marine reserves can be seen as pure gold mines since landings at these reserve edges can be exceptional due to something called "spillover". As the extent of spillover depends on boundary length and the edge-area ratio, vLPAs would not result in a high degree of spillover unless it was long in shape (rather than circular).

Target species
Protected areas need to be implemented with a species in mind. Small reserves have the capability to protect significant biodiversity in some species, such as in South African fynbos. Predators such as the African wild dog and brown bear, on the other hand, may require large areas to retain a decent proportion of their original species richness. vLPAs can encompass a species' entire range and as such as perceived as being 'better', however a tight network of highly connective reserves can achieve essentially the same thing. The (and I practised this a lot so I could actually say it correctly) Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Northwestern Hawaiian islands) is a prime example of this. For mobile species such as the giant trevally, the general consensus is that it is difficult to protect such populations due to their fluid spatial movements. By protecting important aggregation sites such as feeding or spawning sites, these populations can be protected without having to cordon off large areas.

What about cost?
In economic terms, a protected area may be seen as an investment - as such the expected benefits need to outweigh the potential costs before its implementation. A major cost involved is the displacement of fishermen from previously fished areas (should that area be closed to fishing activity). Asides from this aspect, protected areas are not cheap. Running costs of between $5 billion and $19 billion were estimated by Balmford et al. (2004) should we create enough PAs to meet biodiversity targets. Smaller reserves can be managed by small, local populations (community effort right?) whilst very large reserves suffer from the extreme demand for resources and personnel required to manage the large boundaries.

A brief summary of the advantages and disadvantages of vLPAs (in both terrestrial and marine sites) can be found below:

Support more species
Difficulties in enforcing protection over a large area.
Large protective core not affected by ‘edge-effects’
Conflict over land use and economical expenses.
Accommodate range shifts due to climate change
May not be as beneficial to fisheries as first thought.
Accommodate highly mobile/migratory species.

A few key references that I have cited here...
Balmford, A., Gravestock, P., Hockley, N., McClean, C. J., & Roberts, C. M. (2004). The worldwide costs of marine protected areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(26), 9694-9697

Roberts, C. M., Bohnsack, J. A., Gell, F., Hawkins, J. P., & Goodridge, R. (2001). Effects of marine reserves on adjacent fisheries. Science, 294(5548), 1920-1923.

I haven't referenced this one but it is really useful (for my revision and for those who are generally interested in marine reserves)

Roberts, C.M. & Hawkins, J.P. (2000) Fully protected marine reserves: A guide. World Wildlife Fund, Washington DC (link here:

Thursday, 10 May 2012

6th World Fisheries Congress, Edinburgh.

In typical Rachel-form I have this post and a few others in draft form that are in dire need of completing and publishing. Also in typical Rachel-form, I got far too exciting about the 6th World Fisheries Congress that I have just volunteered at and subsequently my post about the coral reef monitoring programme shall have to wait.

So, it all started when I received an e-mail from my supervisor at the University of York with a great opportunity. Reading the e-mail I became pretty damn fixated on the idea of me travelling up to Edinburgh for a few days and volunteering, both gaining some valuable experience and doing a fair bit of networking on the side. I immediately sent an e-mail to Angela from Congrex saying I was interesting, and felt a little disheartened when I didn't hear anything back. I assumed that the places were filled and they wouldn't require my services. Shame really, I would have loved to have done it.

A week or so later I received an e-mail saying that I had been chosen to be part of the volunteering team. Getting a little excited about the prospect of helping out at such a prestigious event (and obtaining a rather fetching blue t-shirt) I booked my train tickets, booked my accommodation for two nights and waited ever so patiently for the day to arrive. Now, for me to say I wasn't nervous about travelling up to Edinburgh on my own, meeting new people and rooting around for some confidence would be a complete lie. I was terrified! I do tend to have a pretty nervous disposition and as such rarely put myself out there and grasp life's opportunities by the horns. Why? Because I just stick my head in the sand. I knew that this opportunity was something I needed to go for. The 6th World Fisheries Congress is the olympic-event of the fisheries sector. It comes around once every 4 years and this was the first time it had entered UK waters.

So, Monday arrived and I was sat on the train. I'd forgotten my coffee which was a bit of a pain (hey, that rhymes). The journey itself was only 2 and a half hours long and I arrived in good time. I could have left at Waverely and walked to the hostel (20-30 minutes walk), but I decided to stay on and get off at Haymarket instead (1 minute walk to the hostel). Fabulous. Silly me didn't check the check-in time at the hostel so when I arrived at 11am-ish they couldn't check me in and I was left feeling a daft. I was able to leave my case in their laundry room which made things better and I proceeded to have a mooch around Haymarket before meeting the rest of the volunteer team at 1pm at the EICC.

The Edinburgh International Conference Centre, EICC. 
I had a twaddle inside and immediately felt nervous again. I signed in to the building, let them know I was a volunteer, picked up a t-shirt or two, grabbed my name tag that I had to wear at all times and went to get changed before joining the other volunteers for a briefing. I couldn't resist when it came to taking a cheeky photo of me in my gear. Excuse the toilet behind, it was the only mirror that I could get access to.

A little bit 'scene' but I couldn't care less - me and my fetching t-shirt and name tag (the wrong way round as it spent most of the time...)
T-shirt logo and the lovely shark keyring/bottle opener in the goody bags.

After the briefing we were given our training on the Congrex computers. My job was on the pre-registration desks alongside a few others. We were the first people that the delegates would meet upon entering the EICC and so it was important that we provided service with a smile (as per). The system was very easy to use, we had to lookup delegates based on confirmation number (that very few actually had) or surname (thankfully everyone has a surname so there was no problem here... Most of the time).

My lovely desk with a touch-screen monitor and a rather annoying keyboard.

Pre-registration on the Monday officially opened at 3pm, so shortly after the delegates came drifting in through the doors and guided to our desks. Easy peasy. They were checked-in on the system, name badges were printed, Duchy bags were handed out (with various goodies inside) and they were sent on their way, either to the New Registrations/Accounts desk (if there was an account query) or to the Tours and Social desk if they had a ticket to be exchanged.

Duchy Originals - Itchy, kind of smelly and moulted - A nice touch either way.

Drinks were being served at 7pm for the Welcome Reception downstairs in the Exhibition room and, as expected, 6.45pm proved the busiest time for the registration desks. Delegates were flooding in and it was an absolute mission trying to get through everyone. Thankfully we finished at 7.15pm and some of us made our way downstairs to meet and greet the delegates and have a really good mooch around the Exhibitions.

It was actually a really good opportunity to get some vital networking done. I walked around with one of the other volunteers who is significantly more confident then I am and basically followed like a little lost sheep most of the time. We spoke to Natural England for a long time which was nice (since I am working with them in July) and it has given me an idea to enquire about some graduate positions/ work experience within the North-West. After more networking, a glass of wine and a bottle of beer I was ready for bed (honestly, you try doing a long day on your feet talking to a lot of people and eating very little). By 9pm we were allowed to leave and I made my way back to the hostel for a good night's kip (... I wished).

I was up again at 5.45am (joy of joys) and after a pretty horrific night's sleep (being woken up by a lady on the lower bunk either a) snoring or b) sleep-talking rather loudly) I really did not want to drag myself out of bed but, alas, needs must. Also, today was a pretty big day since we needed to prepare for our 'special guest'.

Welcome to the 6th World Fisheries Congress
 The Opening Ceremony began at about 10am and was pretty impressive, I have to admit. We all piled into the biggest room in the EICC. I managed to wade my way through masses of people alongside two other volunteers so we could park ourselves on the second row from the front on the left hand side. Perfect spot. I thoroughly enjoyed Ray Hilborn's talk, mainly because he talked about the environmental effects of fisheries from a whole different stance. He basically suggested that the environmental costs of NOT fishing would cause a lot of stress for terrestrial habitats and cause a greater degree of biodiversity loss than if fishing took place. It was interesting since I hadn't really thought of it like that. The dilemma that we are in at the moment is that of food security. We have the challenge of sourcing food to feed nearly 7 billion people. If we take away one of the world's greatest suppliers of protein - fish - out of the equation then we need to find alternative sources, simple as. Based on a few of the statistics readily found on the web he made an interesting point regarding this, that in order to replace the world fish production by grazing at world average grazing productivity we would need 139km-squared of grazing lands.

Putting this into perspective, Hilborn provided an example of what this could do. The Peruvian anchoveta fishery has been extensively fished for years, yet to replace this fishery and supply the same amount of protein from land-based agriculture it would result in a vast amount of deforestation in order to allow for the extensive numbers of farmland that would follow. This, sadly, means that over 4500 orang-utans a year would suffer. Now, I'm not one for ignoring the 'little species' and focussing on the larger-than-life charismatic animals but he has got a point. Stopping the fishing industry completely would be incredibly detrimental to the longevity of terrestrial ecosystems and cause a serious decline in biodiversity.

Delivering his speech. Image by MarineLink (
Those present in the opening ceremony were also privy to a talk by none other than HRH Prince of Wales. Prince Charles gave a rather passionate speech (I thought so anyway). His keynote speech can be found here.

In between the mingling, actually doing the job at hand and serving the needs of anyone who required assistance, I managed to see a few of the talks. One of which was about the CFP Reform, the panel being Richard Benyon, Lowri Evans, Richard Lochhead, Tony Long and Julio Morón. The session I saw was set out much like the BBCs Question Time where a panel answered a series of questions asked by the audience. I only popped in for the last half an hour but it was interesting to say the least. I managed to hear about their views on discards and the discard-ban, and also about subsidies. Now I was trying to tweet furiously (as were several other of the delegates as I realised). Whilst most of what I was saying probably sounded like complete and utter rubbish (I just don't know enough about it).
"Stopping discards are good but need to maintain biomass in oceans and thus focus on what is being landed rather than protein landed"
I met some wonderful people during my two days there. I was honestly gutted that I didn't feel well enough for my final (3rd) day but I learnt a lot and feel like I have come away from a fantastic experience. I just hope the 7th World Fisheries Congress is within the EU and that I can hopefully volunteer in the next four years... We shall see.