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Are we stealing food from the birds? Developing the evidence base to develop targets for ecologically sustainable fisheries

Department of Animal and Plant Sciences

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Dr T Webb , Dr F Daunt , Dr C Lynam No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Seabirds play a crucial role in marine food webs, but globally they have declined in recent decades with 28% of species now threatened with extinction. They face a number of threats at sea including commercial fisheries (through competition and bycatch), climate change and pollution. They also face serious challenges on land, including alien invasive predators, habitat degradation and human disturbance, and there is considerable concern about the detrimental impacts of offshore renewable developments. The sensitivity of seabirds to these threats, their significant cultural and economic importance in coastal countries like the UK, and excellent monitoring data documenting their population trends, have led to seabird abundance and breeding success being adopted as indicators of the state of marine biodiversity. We know that many seabird species forage heavily on pelagic fish, and tracking and modelling studies have provided us with a good knowledge of the spatial distribution of predation pressure from seabirds in the seas surrounding the UK. But extending this to the wider food web is limited by the difficulty in mapping the distribution of prey species within these foraging ranges. This project combines seabird ecology, fisheries monitoring, and ecological data science to overcome this barrier, integrating newly-available data from fisheries acoustics with trawl surveys along with catch and effort data from commercial fishing vessels, and combining this with spatially-resolved estimates of seabird predation pressure and seabird diet, to identify overlap between foraging zones, fisheries and marine protected areas. The overall objective is to better understand the complex interactions between seabirds, their prey, other competing predators, and commercial fisheries, in order to inform management efforts to drive sustainable fisheries whilst maintaining healthy seabird populations. To achieve this, the student will:

Model the spatial distribution of piscivorous fish and forage fish alongside fisheries in the Celtic and North Seas
Combine data and models to quantify the prey requirements of seabirds
Investigate how prey availability, consumption requirements of piscivorous fish and seabirds, and mortality and production at seabird colonies have changed through time
Identify whether commercial fisheries catch in is creating a detrimental impact on seabird breeding success and/or if competition between piscivorous fish and seabirds might exacerbate this impact

This project will be based in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield - ranked in the top 25 departments in the world for ecology - and has been developed in collaboration with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) Coastal Seas Ecology Group, responsible for some of the longest running and most comprehensive seabird population monitoring datasets in the world, and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), a world leader in marine science including biodiversity and fisheries science. There will be opportunities to work closely with both partner institutions, giving the student the opportunity to explore the science-policy interface. The student will also have the opportunity to work with collaborators at the Sea Mammal Research Unity at St Andrews to develop the modelling framework. Results from this project are expected to feed in to the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, helping to prioritise actions that will embed the ecosystem approach into sustainable fisheries management whilst conserving seabird populations.

This project will suit a motivated student interested in marine ecosystems, seabird conservation, and/or fisheries, with an enthusiasm for working with data and a drive to develop high-level skills in computational ecology.

Science Graduate School
As a PhD student in one of the science departments at the University of Sheffield, you’ll be part of the Science Graduate School. You’ll get access to training opportunities designed to support your career development by helping you gain professional skills that are essential in all areas of science. You’ll be able to learn how to recognise good research and research behaviour, improve your communication abilities and experience the breadth of technologies that are used in academia, industry and many related careers. Visit to learn more.

Funding Notes

Fully funded studentships cover: (i) a stipend at the UKRI rate (£15,009 per annum for 2019-2020), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees. Studentship(s) are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements.
This PhD project is part of the NERC funded Doctoral Training Partnership “ACCE” (Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment ACCE is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, York, CEH, and NHM.
Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place in the w/c 10th February 2020.

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