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PhD: The effect of offshore windfarms on the distribution, behaviour, and abundance of fish – Heriot Watt University

Application deadline: 10 February 2023, Candidates must be available to start in October 2023.

The multidisciplinary supervisory team consists of Professor Paul Fernandes (primary, Heriot-Watt Unversity), Dr Douglas Speirs (Strathclyde University), Dr Esther Jones and Dr Adam Butler (BioSS, Edinburgh) and Dr Kate Searle (CEH, Edinburgh).  The successful candidate will benefit from PhD training programmes at the partner organisations and also register in the MASTS Graduate School, which provides additional education and training to ensure that PhD students gain the full complement of skills required to achieve the best in their future careers.

Project description

The UK faces significant challenges to decarbonise and secure its energy sources. Due to its favourable geographic location, offshore wind (OW) has been identified as playing a critical role in tackling these challenges. Significant OW capacity is being installed as part of the British Energy Security Strategy, which also aims to reduce planning and regulation time by half for new OW projects and increase consenting rate. Such ambitions require a better scientific evidence base to ensure that no harm comes to the marine environment. In the case of OW, the most serious risk to consenting are its impacts on seabirds, which, in addition to direct effects such as collision, may also be indirectly affected by changes to the abundance and distribution of their prey. This PhD studentship aims to understand the effect of OW on fish, which are the main seabird prey and a potential target of strategic compensatory measures via fisheries management. The study will obtain data from the ECOWINGS project, which has been funded through the EcoWIND programme, and the student will be embedded into the ECOWINGS team of multidisciplinary researchers.

Whether seabirds are directly disturbed resulting in avoidance of OW areas, or whether they are tracking OW-driven spatio-temporal changes to their prey, or some combination of both, is unclear. This knowledge gap has been challenging to address because of the striking lack of concurrent data on distribution and behaviour of seabirds and their prey at appropriate temporal and spatial scales. Cumulative impacts of such processes are predicted to become increasingly important as the proportion of habitat occupied by OW increases. The lack of basic mechanistic understanding of fine scale predator-prey interactions at-sea and population dynamic consequences on seabirds represents a significant hindrance to robust and defensible policy decisions on how to compensate for OW effects.

OW farms (OWF), in common with other man-made marine structures (MMS), are known to provide three-dimensional habitat, which at the very least aggregates fish and other marine life, and in some MMS, has been shown to enhance production. As is the case with most MMS, we know little about the extent to which fish distribute themselves at distance from the structure, and less about how MMS networks, typified by OWF, can influence behaviour, and abundance in and outside the network. The ECOWINGS project aims to examine the distributions of fish in and around OWF, making unique measurements with novel platforms such as Uncrewed Surface Vehicles (USVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). These measurements will be taken concurrently with seabird surveys from aerial surveys. The ECOWINGS datasets will be made available and, to distinguish the studentship from the project, the student will focus on deriving metrics of fish school echotrace descriptors to understand potential impacts on seabird distributions. These metrics are classed as positional (school depth, latitude, longitude, date, and time), morphometric (school height, width, area, perimeter, roughness), energetic (acoustic intensity, which is proportional to density, its variability, centre of mass), and school environment (minimum and maximum depth under the school, school cluster patch size). These have been used to distinguish fish schools, but here will be used to examine how schools of the same species behave in are association with predators. The datasets derived from the AUV of undisturbed fish schools at the surface will be particularly pertinent for studies of [seabird] predator [fish] prey interactions, particularly for surface-feeding seabirds such as black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla).

The student will work with modellers on the project based at Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland (BIOSS) and seabird ecologists at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) to produce species distribution models that account for their association with the OWF network and environmental correlates. This will deliver key new evidence for understanding the effect of OWF on fish distributions and abundance, which will inform the management of these resources. They will also have potential to apply joint species distribution models, developed in the ECOWINGS project, to understand interspecific co-occurrence within and between additional lower trophic levels, as the acoustic data can also provide detailed data on krill.

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