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Examining the human-predator interface of the North Sea: interactions between man-made subsea structures, marine predators, and commercial fisheries.

School of Biology

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Dr D Russell No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
St Andrews United Kingdom Data Analysis Ecology Environmental Biology Marine Biology Statistics

About the Project

Project description:

The North Sea has entered a period of rapid change, incorporating large-scale decommissioning of oil and gas infrastructure; increases in the marine renewable energy industry; changes to commercial fisheries management; and ongoing climate change. The North Sea is also home to globally significant populations of marine predators including seabirds, seals and cetaceans. Predators and fishers have a complex relationship with man-made structures (MMS) and with each other. For example, mammals can be displaced during MMS construction and operation, but once installed, MMS can host artificial reefs with localised increases in fish densities, resulting in attraction of individual predators to forage at MMS (e.g. Russell et al. 2014). MMS can also act as de facto MPAs because many exclude commercial fisheries and shipping. Some fishers preferentially operate near pipelines (Rouse et al. 2018), likely due to increased fish densities, but in general fishers are advocates for the removal of decommissioned structures. Marine predator interactions with fishers can be direct e.g. following fishers to scavenge on discards (Bodey et al. 2014) and predator by-catch (Lewison et al. 2004) or indirect e.g. competition for prey resources (Matthiopoulos et al. 2008). Finally, predatory species compete, predate, and facilitate each other via multiple mechanisms.

Understanding the above relationships is critical to harmonising conservation of biodiversity with future resource management. This project will fill critical knowledge gaps through three objectives:

(1) Quantification of the magnitude and spatial scale of the effect of MMS on fishing activity,

(2) Quantification of the relative importance of fishers and MMS in influencing the movement of top predators,

(3) Comprehensive assessments of overlap and potential for interaction between the distributions of guilds of top predators, fishers, and the current and potential future MMS landscapes.

This project will use modelling techniques to examine how issues relating to resource management (fisheries practices and energy production) affect the distribution and activity of top predators and fishers. A main focus will be the use of Hidden Markov Models to analyse tracking data (seals, seabirds and fishers). All required datasets have already been collected and are accessible to this project. Although this project is desk based, the student will have potential opportunities to engage in fieldwork arising through other projects. The outputs will inform policy as well as forming peer-reviewed contributions of relevance to the fields of spatial, movement and applied ecology. Note this project will not be considering the above-water impacts of wind turbines.

With the support of the supervisors, and external courses where necessary, the student will gain expertise in movement and spatial ecology, marine predator ecology and the interface between science and policy, specifically in relation to decommissioning. The student will develop a range of transferable skills, particularly in relation to the manipulation and analysis of large datasets. They will be part of a growing network of environmental scientists in the

SUPER doctoral training partnership ( SUPER provides students with inter-institutional support and shared training opportunities. Students are also registered for the SUPER Post Graduate Certificate in Researcher Professional Development.

The project is a partnership between the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) in the Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) at the University of St Andrews (UoSA), the University of Aberdeen (UoA) and Marine Scotland Science. The project also involves the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) as collaborators and data providers. It will be supervised by Drs Debbie Russell (SMRU), Sally Rouse (Marine Scotland Science), Thomas Bodey (UoA), and Matt Carter (SMRU). The student will be based at the SOI where the student will join a community of ecologists, oceanographers, social scientists and statisticians. They will also spend time at partner institutions. More broadly, the highly collaborative nature of this project will expose the student to different institutions, including academic, governmental and charity-based non-governmental organisations, giving them the opportunity to build a broad network of contacts.

Additional criteria:

Applicants should have a good degree in biology or a related subject. A quantitative background is desirable, and previous experience with tracking data would be an advantage.

This is a fully funded PhD project through The Scottish Universities Partnership for Environmental Research Doctoral Training Partnership (SUPER DTP ), co-funded by NERC, University of St Andrews and Marine Scotland Science.

Due to funder restrictions, this project is open only to 1) UK Nationals, 2) non-UK citizens holding Settled Status in the UK (or with an application for Settled Status already in the system) or 3) citizens of Commonwealth Countries. 

How to apply:

Informal enquiries should be directed to Dr Russell ([Email Address Removed])

Applications can be made online via our online portal-

Funding Notes

Due to funder restrictions, this project is open only to UK Nationals, 2) non-UK citizens holding Settled Status in the UK (or with an application for Settled Status already in the system) or 3) citizens of Commonwealth Countries.
The 3.5 year studentship covers
• Tuition fees (UK fee rate only)
• Maintenance grant of £15,000 per annum
• Funding for research training
• Part-time study is an option, with a minimum of 50% of full-time effort being required.
Please note fees and stipend differ for non-UK students, please see NERC’s latest PhD guidance and


Russell, D.J.F. et al. (2014) Marine mammals trace anthropogenic structures at sea. Curr. Biol. 24, R638–R639
Rouse, S. et al. (2018) Commercial fisheries interactions with oil and gas pipelines in the North Sea: considerations for decommissioning. ICES J. Mar. Sci. 75, 279–286
Bodey, T.W. et al. (2014) Seabird movement reveals the ecological footprint of fishing vessels. Curr. Biol. 24, R514–R515
Lewison, R.L. et al. (2004) Understanding impacts of fisheries bycatch on marine megafauna. Trends Ecol. Evol. 19, 598–604
Matthiopoulos, J. et al. (2008) Getting beneath the surface of marine mammal-fishery competition. Mamm. Rev. 38, 167–188

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