A photo of Lydia Koehler standing on a beach, by Lloyd Russell

Lydia Koehler is an experienced and passionate marine scientist and ocean advocate. 

Working in marine conservation for more than 10 years, Lydia has amassed a collection of varied experience which includes five years in the Mediterranean, as well as time in Egypt, Australia and beyond. 
Graduating with a masters in marine biology in 2011, Lydia has grown from role to role and gained not only more experience in the field but also in their education. Lydia is now an expert in marine conservation policies, conservation management, and policy implementation for marine fauna and habitats. 
As well as a strong interest in marine policy, Lydia has developed a passion for the application and development of law. A passion she has focused into PhD research on fisheries management and conservation related to sharks.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Lydia talks about her career and why her shark governance research at Plymouth is so important for conservation.
Photo of Lydia Koehler looking out to sea, taken by Lloyd Russell
  • Conservation professional with marine management and policy focus
  • A passion for shark conservation and ecology
  • Associate Lecturer and PhD candidate at Plymouth
  • Member of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law

In conversation with Lydia Koehler

A connection to the sea

Do you know when your passion for conservation began?
It has always been a part of me. When I was eight years old, I said to my mum, “I want to study fish,” and it never changed. I guess you can call it a 'calling'. 

I was, and still am, fascinated by oceans – the life within them and how everything connects and how how we try to protect it.

You have gathered a variety of marine experience across the globe. Can you share some highlights?
After graduating with my first masters degree in marine science, I worked for a small non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Egypt that focused on reef conservation and I received my qualification as official Reef Check trainer and became a dive instructor. 
I next took a job as a 'whale shark spotter' in Australia, where I had many incredible encounters with the gentle giants. 

My favourite story, one I'm not shy to tell at every opportunity, is that I showed Michael Phelps his first whale shark.

Following this, I went to South Africa to do an internship on great white shark research. A move to Brunei Darussalam then beckoned to re-introduce reef checks and train nationals in coral reef monitoring. 
After this, I moved back to Malta and worked for the Environment and Resources Authority and represented the country in multiple international and EU Commission-led meetings and met some incredible people.
A photo of Lydia Koehler sitting on a rock, with the sea behind, by Lloyd Russell.
A photo of Lydia Koehler standing on the beach, with the sea behind her, by Lloyd Russell.
Photo of Lydia Koehler on the beach looking out to sea, by Lloyd Russell
What does it feel like to conduct underwater surveys on coral reefs?
It is one of the best things I have ever done. Collecting data on coral reef health can support decision making and hopefully improve management.

Watching reef life interact and seeing the life reefs support has always been a very special experience.

You would be surprised how many different sounds there are on a reef and the crazy stuff fish do. Unfortunately, it can also be a sad experience, as coral reefs suffer multiple pressures which can lead to diseases, bleaching and coral destruction.

What have been some memorable diving experiences?
I once installed underwater cameras to film Manta rays feeding and got stuck as they all came into the bay, feeding just above my head. 
During a drift dive along a stunning reef wall in the Maldives, as we were about to begin our 5m safety stop, a whale shark swam past.
But the big things are not always the most exciting. 

I love watching all small living creature on a reef interact, such as cleaning stations or clown fish protecting their anemone, which they do quite aggressively.

Clownfish family with little sea anemone.

A passion for policy

What inspired you to specialise in marine policy and management? 
After working in marine science and coral reef conservation, I shifted my focus towards law and policy making, as I thought I could make more of a difference at this level and because I discovered I really like studying law and policy. 

What are some of the differences moving from working with NGOs to governments?

Working with and for NGOs brings great joy, as this community is so driven to make a difference and the people are extremely passionate. 

It gives one hope to work in such an environment where everyone is trying to make the world a better place.
Working for a government entity often comes with restraints, as there are limitations to what one can say because you suddenly represent an official regulatory entity and with that comes political concerns and guidance on certain aspects. I also often encountered administrative obstacles to drive change.

How have you developed your passion for law?
My masters degree in ocean governance brought me to law and made me realise that I quite like legal research and law in general.
I was part of the first cohort to study this course and the International Ocean Institute, who developed it, did such a great job. They brought international experts to Malta to teach us based on real life work experience, for example with the United Nations. It was such an honour to meet these people and learn from them – they were certainly an inspiration for me.
Cownose ray swimming in the water.
Photo of Lydia Koehler holding up a shark egg case to the camera, by Lloyd Russell
Basking sharks.

Shark governance

Can you tell us about your PhD?
My PhD focuses on shark governance in the Mediterranean. I am comparing the international and regional legal obligations for shark conservation and management and what countries do, and have done, at national level to fulfil these obligations.

What does shark governance cover?
Shark governance is a combination of legal obligations, policies and on the ground actions for shark conservation and management. It focuses on how countries approach conservation and fisheries management at national level. 

Why is it needed?

'Sharks' – the term I use to refer to all elasmobranchs – are one of the most threatened groups of species in our oceans and many are disappearing due to overfishing. 

Other pressures include pollution, habitat degradation and climate change. We have a responsibility to act to ensure that we halt biodiversity loss and prevent further population declines and support the recovery of marine life and habitats. 
We need common standards and goals to work towards, which are set through laws and policies. We need action to protect threatened species from these pressures, to ensure a sustainable approach to fishing, reduce bycatch, and make countries, companies and individuals liable for harmful actions. 
What are some threats to shark conservation?

The most relevant and highest impact one is unsustainable fishing, including overfishing and illegal fishing. 

What roles do governments and NGOs play in shark conservation?
Governments need to show political will to protect sharks within their jurisdiction and determine priorities at national level, then act and enforce.
NGOs contribute to many aspects of shark conservation by collecting helpful data, educating the public, raising awareness, even proposing policy changes and actions at national level. 

What policies are being used and are in development to help shark conservation?
This is a complex question that has no simple answer. There are multiple legal instruments that try to protect sharks or manage fisheries that also catch sharks (either as target species or as bycatch). Some are binding and some are not.
In terms of conservation measures, marine protected areas might be useful for some local populations, if well managed and enforced, but are more difficult to be effective for highly mobile species. There are a few action plans in place which list measures to protect sharks, but these are only guidance and it is up to a country to decide what to do. 
Ultimately, we need to manage fisheries better, reduce fishing pressure on vulnerable species and consider actions that contribute to the recovery of species and marine ecosystems.

What are elasmobranchs? 

Elasmobranchii is a subclass of cartilaginous fish. This includes sharks, rays, skates and sawfish. Members are characterised by having five to seven pairs of gill clefts opening individually to the exterior, rigid dorsal fins and small placoid scales on the skin.

Black tip shark swimming in the lagoon.
Can you tell us about working with Mr Jason Lowther at Plymouth?
The reason why I came to Plymouth is that I met Jason on a boat trip in Malta. I sent him a proposal and one year later he became my supervisor. It has been a privilege working with him. 

What has been the focus of your joint academic papers to date?
A photo of Lydia Koehler sitting on a rock, with the sea behind, by Lloyd Russell.
A manta ray gliding under a hammerhead shark.
A photo of Lydia Koehler standing on a beach looking out to sea, by Lloyd Russell.
How important a role does citizen science play in spreading the message of shark conservation to the public?
This is subject of quite a few studies in recent years. Citizen science has been proven to make a valuable contribution to the data collection necessary for shark conservation, it also helps to educate people and increase their support for shark conservation.

Is there anything the public can do to help with shark conservation?
There is a lot one can do to support shark conservation. From making informed decision about your choice of fish, to getting actively involved either through citizen science projects (such as egg case searches on the beach) or becoming a member of a shark NGO. 
People have a right to know what fish they buy, where and how it was caught and how it was processed. Follow NGO guides to determine whether your fish was fished sustainably and check the status of a shark species online, for example on the IUCN Red List assessment website.

Once you know more about sharks and how to protect them, spread the word and become an ambassador for sharks and the ocean in general.

Can you tell us what it means to be approved to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Environmental Law (IUCN WCEL)?
I will find out over the course of the next three years. I hope to be able to work with legal scholars, peers, and colleagues together on projects concerning contemporary legal issues in relation to the oceans. 

What is the next step for you with your PhD?
I am currently writing it up, so that will take a bit of time. After that my supervisors will provide me with feedback before I finalise my thesis and upload it for examination. If it all goes well, I will be finishing soon with the final step being my defence (viva).

What is the main goal after you have completed your PhD?
This is a very good, but also complicated question. I would like to continue my research and expand on my skills in all things legal. I hope to work closely together with the IUCN’s WCEL and gain more experience in legal research, but also continue work on sharks to help improve their management and conservation. 

Many thanks Lydia for your time. We wish you all the best with your PhD and future research.
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