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Using multibeam sonar to monitor animal behaviour and environmental interactions at marine renewable energy sites

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  • Full or part time
    Dr B Williamson
    Prof V Nikora
    Dr J Wilson
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About This PhD Project

Project Description

To date, there are 8.5 GW of installed UK offshore wind capacity, and it is estimated 20% of current UK electricity demand could be met with wave and tidal stream sources. However, with rapid development of marine renewable energy (MRE) including wind, wave and tidal stream energy, uncertainty remains surrounding the environmental and ecological effects. Concerns include disruption of migratory and foraging animal behaviour, direct mortality from animal collision with underwater turbines, attraction of animals as a result of prey aggregation around structures, or displacement from preferred habitats.

Changes in behaviour of fish species, in particular those which are common prey of seabirds and marine mammals, could lead to changes in foraging behaviour of their predators as observed at offshore wind turbines. A recent study found 1.75 times higher fish school (prey) passage rates at tidal turbine structures, and 5.66 times higher in low speed wakes [1]. However, key questions remain about whether these increases in prey abundance are reflected in changes in predator numbers or behaviour; understanding potential predator responses also has important consequences for collision risk with either above water (wind) or below water (tidal) turbine blades. Regulators need information on animal distribution, underwater behaviour and interactions with marine energy developments to inform licensing and management.

Multibeam sonar mounted on seabed platforms has been demonstrated as a suitable method to investigate these knowledge gaps [2-4], providing continuous, fine-scale information on the behaviour, distribution and interactions of fish, diving seabirds and marine mammals, including predator-prey behaviour.

This inter-disciplinary PhD will develop algorithms for multibeam sonar data processing for target detection, tracking and classification in high energy sites. The project will build on several existing datasets allowing investigation of the transferability of techniques and results between sites / devices / instruments. Analysis of the results will address key ecological and regulator questions on predator-prey interactions, animal behaviour, and biophysical coupling at MRE sites.

The project will also develop recommendations for future data collection to ensure measurements can effectively meet monitoring requirements in collaboration with the project partner Marine Scotland Science. A robust and transferable suite of processing tools will address industry uncertainty and answer the crucial ecological questions on the environmental effects of MRE development. The student will be able to engage in future data collection opportunities to apply the techniques and recommendations.

Programming experience and algorithm development are essential (e.g., MATLAB, C/C++, Python) ideally with experience of computer vision, image processing, machine learning and analysis of large datasets. Experience and interest in multibeam sonar data processing, data collection in marine energy sites, marine instrumentation, quantitative ecology, coastal fluid dynamics and biophysical interactions are all desirable.

Funding Notes

Funded by NERC Studentships awarded to the SUPER Doctoral Training Partnership. The SUPER DTP partner Universities are St Andrews University, Aberdeen University, Edinburgh Napier University, Heriot-Watt University, the University of the Highlands and Islands, Stirling University, University of Strathclyde and the University of the West of Scotland. Underpinning these research partners, providing additional training and projects are Marine Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the James Hutton Institute, among a total of 40 stakeholder organisations including industry and government agencies and international collaborators.

The start date of this project is: 5th October 2020

The 3½ year studentships cover:
• Tuition fees each year (for 2019/20 this is currently £4,327 for full-time study)
• A maintenance grant each of around £15,000 per annum (for full-time study)
• Funding for research training
• Part-time study is an option, with a minimum of 50% of full-time effort being required.

Applicants should normally have, or be studying for:
• A postgraduate Master’s degree from a degree-awarding body recognised by the UK government, or equivalent, or
• A first or upper second class honours degree from a degree awarding body recognised by the UK government, or equivalent, or
• Other qualifications or experience that affords sufficient evidence of an applicant’s ability to work at the academic level associated with doctoral study.

Project specific enquiries: [Email Address Removed]

General enquiries: Graduate School Office [Email Address Removed]


1. B.J. Williamson et al. Predictable changes in fish school characteristics due to a tidal turbine support structure. Renewable Energy. 2019.
2. B.J. Williamson et al. Multisensor acoustic tracking of fish and seabird behavior around tidal turbine structures in Scotland. Oceanic Engineering. 2017.
3. G. Hastie et al. Three-dimensional movements of harbour seals in a tidally energetic channel. Aquatic Conservation. 2016.
4. E. Cotter et al. Benchmarking sensor fusion capabilities of an integrated instrumentation package. International Journal of Marine Energy. 2017.

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