Ocean acidification in our seas
We have successfully recruited PhD candidates for the Cohort 1 projects listed below.
The projects offered to Cohort 2 candidates are now available and will be open for applications until 17 January for the next round of studentships starting in Autumn 2023.
Bangor University

CDTS103: Setting thresholds for good status in marine ecosystem management

Lead Supervisor: Professor Jan Geert Hiddink
2nd Academic Supervisor: Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop
Associate Partner: NIRAS
Postgraduate researcher: Lorna McKellar

Project description

Environmental management aims to achieve good ecosystem states and avoid adverse or degraded states. Assessing ecosystem state requires indicators of condition and thresholds above which state is defined as ‘good’. For example, the successful management of marine protected areas requires the achievement of good condition and identification of thresholds in ecosystem state, below which the system becomes degraded. The choice of such thresholds has used a wide variety of approaches and in many cases has been haphazard and subjective with varied success and associated socio-economic impacts. Different approaches may result in very different thresholds for prompting management actions, and there is therefore an urgent need to identify the most appropriate methods for identifying thresholds for desirable ecosystem states. Solving this problem requires the integration of ecosystem science, social science and marine policy.

This PhD project will address these questions:

1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of different methods for setting thresholds for desirable ecosystem states?
2. What can be considered as a good ecosystem state?

These questions will be evaluated using a variety of ecological and social science techniques (literature synthesis, simulation, meta-analysis, stakeholder elicitation) and using data from a variety of marine ecosystems, including benthic and pelagic ecosystems. The student will be trained in these techniques, and will undertake placements at several organisations that provide evidence-based advice on ecosystem management to apply the outcomes of the research in different advice settings (ICES, JNCC and NIRAS).

The project will be supervised by Professor Jan Geert Hiddink (Bangor University), Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop (University of Plymouth), Dr Tomas Chaigneau (Exeter University), Dr Ian Gloyne-Phillips and Sally Kazer (NIRAS), Dr Jörn Schmidt and Dr Sebastian Valanko (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) and Cristina VinaHerbon (Joint Nature Conservation Committee). 

CDTS122: Management approaches and tools to empower fishing communities

Lead Supervisor: Dr Shelagh Malham
2nd Academic Supervisor: Professor Michel Kaiser
Associate Partner: Welsh Fisherman’s Association
Postgraduate researcher: Saniye Smith

Project description

Fisheries provide an important cornerstone to coastal economies and heritage. There is a desire from across fishers, industry, stakeholders, managers and academia that these resources are managed sustainably taking into account stock resilience and persistence for future generations, conservation of ecosystems and the sustainability and equity of livelihoods and culture. This project will co-develop whole-system management frameworks to manage these resources in an equitable and sustainable way. The PhD will integrate research and understanding across the transdisciplinary themes of; co-development; the legal and legislative framework; the tools and technology required for implementation and enforcement; and modelling of outcomes across the environment, economic and social landscape. Outputs from the project will provide important evidence and knowledge for fisheries management across the UK with opportunity to directly influence the currently fast-moving UK fisheries policy landscape.

This PhD aims to provide co-management scenarios and solutions for inshore fisheries through the in-depth understanding of the needs, conflicts and values of actors in the system. It will also map out the legislative landscape identify evidence, data needs and investigate technology solutions to break down barriers to implementation. Potential management scenarios will be modelled using Cardigan Bay in Wales.

Project specific training will include; Personal sea survival, fisheries assessment methods, Law and social science research methods, GDPR course, Annual Welsh Scallop survey (RV Prince Madog), ethics for surveys, internship with Welsh Government, mentoring from Seafish socio-economics team and Welsh Fisherman’s Association.

Project chapters:
  • Co-creation of Management Systems
  • Legislative and rights-based approaches to empower fishing communities
  • Delivering tools to enable co-management of fisheries
  • Modelling scenarios of an ecosystem-based approach
Bangor University will host the student with the opportunity to spend time at the Lyell Centre, Heriot Watt University. The student will also be able to engage with other CDT students at Bangor and Heriot Watt working within the fisheries sector.
University of Exeter

CDTS105: Investigating the history of Sussex kelp habitats and their impact on local communities

Lead Supervisor: Professor Callum Roberts
2nd Academic Supervisor: Dr Chris Yesson
Associate Partner: Sussex IFCA
Postgraduate researcher: Madison Bowden-Parry

Project background

Historical perspectives are vital if we are to truly appreciate the scale of past changes in our coastal seas. Increasing numbers of restoration projects are making use of historical sources to inform restoration goals and to connect communities to their local environmental history and heritage. Kelp beds are a critical element of a marine ecosystem, providing vital ecosystem services such as habitat for many commercially important species, and protection for coastal residents. The coast of West Sussex used to be home to an extensive and biodiverse kelp bed habitat spanning 30 km of coastline. This habitat was lost at the end of the 20th century, but is now being restored by the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project. However, our understanding of the spatial extent of this habitat, the timing and drivers of its demise, is very limited.

This project will use a multi-disciplinary approach centred on the emerging field of marine historical ecology to examine the historical extent, uses and impacts of this habitat. It will examine a variety of datasets from council records, to newspaper headlines, remote sensing to fishing activity and interview community elders to piece together a picture of this habitat, how it was once used, and to assess the causes of its decline. This information will of importance to informing the goals and expectations of the ongoing restoration project, and to ensure wide community support. The successful candidate will exploit a range of sources and approaches from the natural sciences, social sciences and history, providing them with an excellent opportunity to learn and employ a wide variety of valuable research skills.

Aims and objectives

This project will examine the history and perceptions of the Sussex kelp beds over the last century, with the aim to inform restoration goals and community understanding of the variety of benefits that restored kelp environments can bring. The specific questions we seek to answer are:

  • What was the historical extent of kelp habitat and seaweed drift? How persistent was this habitat prior to its loss?
  • Which drivers were correlated with past declines and increases in kelp habitat extent?
  • In what ways did local communities and marine resource users perceive and value the kelp habitat? How did the presence and subsequent loss of the kelp habitat affect these communities, socially and economically?
To answer these questions, the candidate will be trained in the use of:

i) historical documentary evidence from government and local authority records, fisheries and popular media reports;
ii) Remote sensing and aerial photographic imagery, and;
iii) semi-structured interviews.

Using the above range of sources and supported by the combined interdisciplinary expertise of the academic and affiliated supervisors, this PhD project will provide a holistic view of the dynamics and social-ecological significance of an important marine habitat over the last century. This historical perspective will provide valuable evidence on the barriers and motivators to restoration and insights on what to expect when kelp habitats are restored in the region.


Although based at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus, the student will spend significant time at ZSL and with Associate Partners to understand the current state of knowledge and activities that are underway to support restoration activities. The project will integrate into the multi-institutional Sussex Kelp Restoration Project, connecting the student with a diverse range of stakeholders including fishers, divers, business owners, local authorities and other members of the Sussex coastal community. The student will thus build a strong interdisciplinary science and policy network, be exposed to the existing scientific and management challenges related to the Sussex Kelp Restoration project, generate an interdisciplinary skillset including mastery of remote sensing, archival and interview techniques, and further develop their research questions to meet academic, scientific and partner needs.

Project structure

This project has been co-developed by several associate partners from universities, charities and government bodies who are an integral part of the Sussex Kelp Restoration project and who will remain actively and closely involved in the PhD project. Given the extensive network already in place, the first 18 months of the project will be dedicated to evidence gathering, interviews, and collation of historical documentation. During this time, the student will be based at ZSL with the secondary supervisor for approximately six months to focus upon and develop their remote sensing skills. The remaining PhD time will be dedicated to assessment and analysis of the discovered historical records and interview transcripts with at least three publishable PhD chapters anticipated.

CDTS107: Past, present and future benefits from marine biogenic shellfish reef habitats

Lead Supervisor: Ruth Thurstan
2nd Academic Supervisor: Stefanie Broszeit
Associate Partner: Natural England
 Postgraduate researcher: Hannah Robinson

Project background:

Biogenic shellfish reefs are complex seafloor habitats created by the presence of species such as oysters and mussels. They promote high biodiversity and provide important benefits to humans including improved water quality, food provision and cultural services such as recreational diving and fishing. These habitats were once highly abundant around the United Kingdom but were subsequently severely depleted. Because of the multiple benefits they provide to humans and marine biodiversity, biogenic reefs are of high conservation and restoration interest. However, we lack an understanding of the scale of past loss, the benefits they once provided and what benefits they could provide in the future if they were to be restored. We also need to understand who will benefit from restoration activities and what trade-offs will have to be made to keep these habitats healthy while coastal habitats continue to be heavily used.

To fill these knowledge gaps, this PhD will investigate the past, present and future of ecosystem service provision in biogenic shellfish reefs at a site in the South West of England, the Fal Estuary. A case study approach will allow for in-depth analysis and practical application. It will also develop methodological approaches and generate lessons for wider research and management.

This PhD will work closely with stakeholders and adopt natural and social scientific approaches to understand the implications of past loss and future regeneration of these habitats, and how the benefits and trade-offs of restoration action will be distributed across society. Supervised by experts based at the University of Exeter, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Natural England, the student will develop a deep knowledge of the challenges facing marine managers while generating an interdisciplinary understanding of approaches to tackle these challenges head-on.
Recent governmental commitments in the 25 Year Environment Plan & Fisheries Act to an ecosystem approach to management, and commitment to a Net Gain approach to biodiversity, means this project has great potential to inform policy and management for biogenic reefs. The successful student will gain the ability to delve into ecological, historical and social science approaches to gain interdisciplinary research skills that they can build on in their future careers in academia, government or industry.

Aims and objectives

This PhD will use primary and secondary data sourced from ecological and environmental repositories, historical archives, interviews and participatory approaches. It aims to answer three overarching questions:

1. How has the distribution, form and function of biogenic shellfish reef habitats changed over time and how can this knowledge be used to inform recovery targets?
2. How have the potential and realised ecosystem services, and the societal distribution of their benefits, changed over time?
3. Under a business as usual and a recovery/restoration scenario, what are the predicted trade-offs across ecosystem services, and how equitable and acceptable are these trade-offs to beneficiaries?

These results will inform discussion around the setting of ecological recovery targets, who benefits from local ecosystem services and how, and the role that historical data can play in setting recovery and restoration targets. By working directly with local stakeholders and local authorities, this project will inform policy and management goals and guide the implementation of future restoration strategies.


This project will demonstrate the value of combining social and ecological sciences to inform sustainable management of marine resources. The successful candidate will be based at the University of Exeter with significant time spent each year at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Natural England to develop their transdisciplinary skills and maximise collaborative networks.

With supervisors based at University of Exeter and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the student will have access to a wide variety of interdisciplinary training opportunities, including the development of archival interrogation techniques, ecological and beneficiary mapping skills, semi-structured and participative interview techniques, and Bayesian Belief Network analysis. Further skill development and networking opportunities at the University of Exeter will be made available through research groups such as ‘Exeter Marine’. At Plymouth Marine Laboratory, students will be exposed to several marine science disciplines in the ‘Sea and Society’ group and throughout the institute.

The student will be encouraged to attend and present at international conferences, and to produce non-academic outputs, such as policy briefs, for stakeholder dissemination. An internship at Natural England during the early stages of the PhD will provide the student with an understanding of the policy environment and policy needs over the short and longer-term.

Project structure

This project is impact-oriented and was co-developed with Natural England (NE) as a CASE partner. Research Question 1 will be closely developed with Natural England, with fieldwork and data analysis underway in year 1. The first year will also be dedicated to the design of the research protocol for Research Questions 2&3, ready for data collection to commence in the second year. At the beginning of year 3 the student will focus on developing their understanding of Bayesian Belief Networks and the production of scenarios for presentation to relevant stakeholders.

The deep understanding and novel insights generated for this fast-moving research field are anticipated to lead to internationally-recognised research papers, of high interdisciplinary interest and with policy impact.

CDTS112: Using an interdisciplinary approach to elucidate pollution impacts and antimicrobial resistant pathogen dynamics across terrestrial, estuarine and marine environments

Lead Supervisor: Professor William Gaze
2nd Academic Supervisor: Professor Davey Jones
Associate Partner: North Devon Biosphere Foundation
Postgraduate researcher: Nina Baskerville

Project description

The impact of environmental change on pathogen dynamics and AMR evolution from catchment to coast

Coastal environments are particularly vulnerable to chemical and microbial pollution that impact ecosystem services and human health. Antimicrobial resistant (AMR) bacterial infections are an emerging societal threat, with approximately 5 million deaths per year globally associated with bacterial resistance to antimicrobial drugs commonly known as antibiotics. It is accepted that the environment plays an important role in the evolution and transmission of AMR, however the dynamics of drug resistant bacteria within river catchments and receiving coastal waters are poorly understood. This is due to the complexity of river catchments, variable weather and climate dependent pollution sources and the fate of particles and pathogens at the freshwater, estuarine, marine interface where human exposure in bathing waters and uptake by farmed shellfish occurs.

This student will investigate pathogen and AMR dynamics in a model catchment and designated coastal bathing water situated within the North Devon Biosphere. This catchment is unique in that it has rich sensor networks utilising Siemens, South West Water and Environment Agency technologies, allowing close to real time data to be acquired on hydrological and chemical variables. This will allow unparalleled opportunities to understand catchment and coastal pathogen and AMR dynamics at a resolution not previously possible. The student will work with a scientific team at Exeter and Bangor recently awarded a 10M Euro grant to study coastal pathogens and climate change. Culture based methods, quantitative PCR and metagenomic approaches will be used to generate field data that will inform understanding of catchment scale process associated with increased transmission risk. In vitro, experimental approaches will be used to understand impacts of future climate change scenarios on AMR evolution and pathogen survival that will also inform models. This interdisciplinary project will provide training in catchment scale and coastal processes, molecular microbial ecology, evolution and elements of modelling supported by a diverse supervisory group with expertise across relevant subject areas. The student will also work with partners at the North Devon Biosphere project and the Environment Agency, giving experience of working across academic, NGO and government sectors. 

CDTS119: Characterising the dynamics around offshore wind farms by combining machine learning and oceanographic techniques

Lead Supervisor: Ian Ashton
2nd Academic Supervisor: Ajit Pillai
Associate Partner: 4 Earth Intelligence
Postgraduate researcher: Sophie Whistler

Project description
This project will use data science techniques and satellite data sets to better understand how offshore wind farms can impact the ocean. In particular, effects on the waves, water circulation and the movement of sediment can change the environment where wind farms are built and the oceans around them.

Until recently, data have mainly been gathered using boats and fixed buoys. However, scientists increasingly use satellites and autonomous vehicles to collect offshore data. These technologies are providing new data sets and this project will aim to use data science techniques, including machine-learning, to combine new, exciting measurements with established techniques leveraging their respective strengths. The aim of this data fusion approach is to provide oceanographic data with resolution, accuracy and ease of access not previously obtained. These data sets will allow us to measure changes to the natural environment and identify the most suitable sites for offshore wind farms while protecting our oceans.

The rapid growth in offshore wind combined with the importance of commercial and environmental viability of proposed projects mean that this project can make a valuable and timely difference to spatial planning and the sustainable management of marine resources.

The project would suit someone with abilities or interest in any of the following fields, data science, the marine environment, offshore wind and remote sensing. The student will be based in the University of Exeter Penryn campus in Cornwall, South West UK. The project will include placements with 4 Earth Intelligence, also in Cornwall, where they will learn how the commercial data market operates for offshore projects alongside the commercial processes for purchasing and processing environmental satellite data. During the final year of research a further placement with 4EI will be used to analyse how the systems and architectures developed for physical oceanographic parameters can be integrated with commercial systems.

CDTS124: Factors limiting marine connectivity at a species’ range edge – the case of the pink sea fan, Eunicella verrucosa

Lead Supervisor: Dr Jamie Stevens
2nd Academic Supervisor: Dr Peter Robins
Associate Partner: Natural England
Postgraduate researcher: Kaila Wheatley Kornblum


In the seas of southwest Britain and Ireland the pink sea fan (Eunicella verrucosa), an IUCN red list octocoral species, is at the northern edge of its natural range; sea fans add complexity to reef systems and provide sites of attachment for the eggs of a variety of species, including sharks, rays, cuttlefish and nudibranchs. Recruitment of new individuals into range-edge populations is often infrequent and sporadic; some peripheral populations also exhibit distinctive patterns of genetic variation. Whether patterns of genetic structure are driven by connectivity through ocean currents or by oceanographic barriers to connectivity, or by selection acting at the range edge, e.g. temperature, is key to our understanding of population dynamics of pink sea fan. The PhD will investigate this exciting topic with practical application to marine conservation through the placement and spacing of marine protected areas (MPAs) designed to support and restore this species.


This project will use SNP genotyping and oceanographic modelling to explore connectivity in the pink sea fan, around southwest Britain and Ireland. The project will focus on assessing diversity and connectivity between sea fan populations along a geographical cline stretching from Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire (a range edge population) with sea fan populations further south: Lundy Island in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Critical to this proposal, we have permission from Natural Resources Wales (NRW) to sample recently settled sea fan recruits within the Skomer Marine Reserve. This site is of particular interest: it is the only major area for sea fans in Wales and is characterised by the presence of a relatively small number of old, large fans, with few new recruits. In addition, at Exeter we hold an extensive collection of sea fan samples collected from across the species’ range including samples from across Devon, Cornwall and Ireland, all potential donor regions for the Skomer population. The oceanography of the region will be mapped using new state-of-the-art models that include features key to larval connectivity, e.g. the Ushant and Celtic Sea fronts, as well as wind-driven surface currents – from which larval dispersal models that include biological traits will characterise population connectivity networks.


The project requires a multidisciplinary approach and the student will receive training in the use molecular genetic methods (genotyping using SNP profiling), oceanographic modelling and aquarium experiments to explore the factors (genetic and oceanographic and biological) limiting connectivity of sea fans; the research will feed into marine policy, in collaboration with the Marine Evidence team at Natural England and NRW.


The student will be registered at Exeter and will be based in the Department of Biosciences, Streatham. All genetic research and associated spatial genetic analysis will be based at Exeter, supervised by Dr Jamie Stevens. The student will also benefit from regular placements at Bangor University and training in oceanographic modelling under the supervision of Dr Peter Robins in the School of Ocean Sciences. A collaboration with researchers at the Horniman Aquarium will facilitate exploration of key biological factors linked to connectivity, e.g. timing of spawning and larval settlement cues. There will also be opportunities for fieldwork at Skomer and a placement with the Marine Evidence Unit (Exeter) of Natural England to explore how data feed into policy and legislation.

In summary, the project offers a unique, trans-disciplinary research training in a highly sought-after field, with opportunities to undertake practical research that will feed directly into UK marine policy.
Heriot-Watt University

CDTS104: Energy, Technology, Behaviour, Culture and Regulation; The complex problems and transition engineering solutions for the future of local, sustainable fishing

Lead Supervisor: Professor Susan Krumdieck
2nd Academic Supervisor: Professor Alison Anderson
Associate Partner: Aquatera
Postgraduate researcher: Meng Wu

Project background

Picture an idyllic fishing village in the British Isles. City dwellers flock to these places for respite and to soak up the quaint historical scenery and great fresh seafood. COVID remote workers and Baby Boom Retirees are also taking up residences in rural areas. However, there are sustainability risks from the complex combination of technology advances, pressures on the marine environment, quotas and regulations, and the growing pressures on the communities themselves from becoming tourism and holiday home destinations. The purpose of our project is to build a Transition Engineering framework for regenerating local fishing communities and the marine resources they depend on. Our project aims to develop the mechanisms to shift from the unsustainable path which has developed over the past 100 years. The research question is “How do we use transition engineering to design interventions and local regulatory mechanisms that preserve traditional knowledge and shift to a sustainable marine and social management pathway? The early-stage objectives of the research are to utilise modern digital capability to create the tools of data exchange and information observation that will be essential for both engineering the transition of the unsustainable aspects of the current fishing regulations and fishing village economics. Once the new kinds of digital interfaces are established, the next objectives are to create serious games that stakeholders from all perspectives can participate in, to co-design sustainable development solutions. The key focus is on the interplay of traditional knowledge, regulations, resources including energy, and external economic factors like tourism.

Aims and objectives for the successful candidate’s research

The aim of the research is to design and demonstrate tools and interventions at the local level that objectively build a pathway to a sustainable future for rural fishing communities.
  • Objective 1: Design, Construct and Demonstrate three key Data Exchanges; (1) Local Fish Landing and Practices; (2) Fishers & Boats Inventory and Energy Inputs; (3) Village Accommodation Inventory
  • Objective 2: Design, Construct and Demonstrate an Information Observatory for the complex interactions of factors
  • Objective 3: Design, Construct and Demonstrate a Serious Game with local ecosystem representatives in Stromness
  • Objective 4: Design, Prepare and Carry Out a Regulatory Sandbox for (1) Local Fish Landing and Practices; (2) Boats and Energies; (3) Village Accommodation and Property Managements
  • Objective 5: Describe Innovative Interventions in (1) Local Fishing Regulations and Practices; (2) Affordable Net Zero Fishing; (3) Local Village Accommodation Rules
Setting for the research

The student will be working with local experts and supervisors to learn accepted methods for conducting research with stakeholders, end users, regulators and the public. The student will learn about the traditional fishing and social context, and the changes and pressures over the past century. The student will learn the Transition Engineering methodology and tools. The student will need to be confident in software engineering and data systems, and will contribute to innovation in data information systems.

The student will be based at the Islands Centre for Net Zero (ICNZ) at the Orkney campus of Heriot-Watt University in the fishing village of Stromness, Orkney. The co-supervisors are Professor Susan Krumdieck of Heriot-Watt University and Professor Alison Anderson of Centre for Coastal Communities, University of Plymouth. The supervisory team includes Dr Michael Bell at the International Centre for Islands Technology in Stromness and Dr Magnus Johnson, Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Hull. Partners in the research project include the digital consultancy Aquatera and Orkney Fisheries Association. 

CDTS108: Exploring geovisualisations as place-based planning tools for collaborative marine and coastal management 

Lead Supervisor: Dr Lauren McWhinnie
2nd Academic Supervisor: Dr Karen Alexander
Postdraduate researcher: Chris Reilly

Project description

Marine and coastal systems provide a wide range of ecosystem services that have significant economic and societal importance. Effective management of these complex and highly dynamic areas requires a broad understanding of these systems, their processes, the various spatial and temporal factors that influence them and how they’re perceived. Therefore, the aim of this project is to develop tools and scenarios using cutting edge mapping technology to both inform and engage a broad range of marine stakeholders and coastal communities about the implications of management options in terms of their potential effects on environmental, social, and economic values and interests. The appointed person will also work with stakeholders to evaluate the tools they design to assess their potential usefulness and their representation of marine places. They will obtain both theoretical knowledge related to ocean literacy, stakeholder participation, ecological impact, and geovisualisation. In addition, they will also gain applied knowledge and technical expertise associated with handling, analysing, and assessing a variety of large spatial datasets as well as advanced skills in developing realistic geovisualisations. They will also work and engage with a transdisciplinary team of researchers, planners, stakeholders, and managers to further develop their skills in stakeholder engagement and develop their wider professional networks. (203) 

CDTS115: Understanding the biodegradation and residence time of microplastics in the ocean

Lead Supervisor: Dr Tony Gutierrez
2nd Academic Supervisor: Professor Peter Golyshin
Associate Partner: Marine Scotland Science
Postgraduate researcher: Jennifer Scott

Project description

We are facing one of the most important marine pollution crises on our planet, threatening the biodiversity of marine ecosystems, coastal tourism, fisheries and aquaculture. Plastics pollution is ubiquitous and persistent in the marine environment, and dominated by the smaller abundant plastic particles (<5 mm) defined as microplastics for which their fate and impacts we still don’t fully understand. This project aims to identify the biological and geochemical/physical processes involved in the fate of plastics (of different polymer types) under different environmental settings. It will utilise sophisticated techniques in microbial ecology, such as DNA-based stable-isotope probing (DNA-SIP), to trace the fate of isotopically-labelled plastics through biological systems; a focus will be on the microorganisms participating in this process as they are often protagonists in the fate of these (and other organic pollutants) in the environment. A major benefit in applying SIP-based methods is in the ability to link phylogenetic identity with a specific metabolic function, in which respect the focus will be on the biodegradation of plastics. The project is multidisciplinary, involving an experienced supervisory team that bring a diverse range of expertise cutting across several disciplines, from environmental microbiology, marine biology and ecology, biotechnology and genomics, biogeochemistry, biological resource storage/sustainability, engineering, modelling and physical oceanography. The research will focus on coastal and offshore regions of the north Atlantic to investigate the biodegradation of microplastics using lab-based and in-situ (in the field) experiments.

The student will be based at Heriot-Watt University, with opportunities to participate on research cruises, and be co-supervised by Bangor University and Marine Scotland Science, with support also by the National Collection of Industrial, Food and Marine Bacteria (NCIMB). 

CDTS121: Offshore wind farms effects on ocean fronts and seabirds

Lead Supervisor: Professor Stephen Votier
2nd Academic Supervisor: Dr Peter Miller
Associate Partner: RPS Group Plc
Postgraduate researcher: Evelyn Alexander

Project description

The UK is a global leader in marine renewables, and offshore wind farms (OWFs) are predicted to expand rapidly in future. However, potential deleterious biodiversity impacts mean we must do more to quantify and mitigate such effects and guide policy decisions. Seabirds are especially at risk from OWFs – they may collide with turbines, face barrier/displacement effects, or be impacted indirectly such as via impacts on oceanography. For instance, increased turbulence around OWFs is predicted to alter water stratification and in turn ocean front formation – ocean fronts are important foraging habitats for a range of marine predators including seabirds. This cross-disciplinary project will combine remote sensing to quantify changes in ocean fronts at OWFs with movement ecology to model foraging success of a model marine predator – the northern gannet Morus bassanus – using long-term precision tracking data in relation to ocean fronts. Then, using a Before After Control Impact design, compare gannet foraging in relation to ocean fronts between two large colonies, one before and after OWF construction (Bass Rock, Scotland) and one with no current OWFs (Grassholm, Wales). The candidate will receive state-of-the-art training in the analysis of remote-sensed oceanography, as well as animal movement ecology. They will be based at Heriot-Watt University, with co-supervision from Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Zoological Society of London, and benefit from links with University of Leeds. They will also work with the ecological consultancy team at RPS limited to link this work directly with policy and the OWF consenting process. 
University of Plymouth

CDTS114: Shifting Seas - a gene to landscape approach to understanding saltmarsh vulnerability and resilience to sea-level rise

Lead Supervisor: Dr Mick Hanley
2nd Academic Supervisor: Angus Garbutt
Associate Partner: DEFRA
Postgraduate researcher: Madeline Gee

Project description

Saltmarsh is a vital component of nature-based solutions to coastal defence, a role recognised in developing UK Government policy, which aims to better manage, protect and restore this habitat over the next 25 years. However, in order to deliver this policy objective and the wider ecosystem and societal benefits that accrue from it, research is needed to understand the risks and opportunities to coastal species and habitats due to sea level rise (SLR) and associated risk from coastal flooding and erosion. ‘Shifting Seas’ takes a gene to landscape scale approach to understand the response of saltmarshes to rising sea levels, incorporating state of the art approaches from a variety of scientific disciplines including tidal hydrodynamics, geomorphology and sedimentology, plant genetics, saltmarsh ecology, field experiments and ecological modelling. 

By combining these transdisciplinary techniques we investigate (1) how and why saltmarshes respond to SLR; (2) how genetic variation informs saltmarsh plant response; (3) how plant species will respond to predicted sea level change and so explore marsh adaptive potential; and (4) deliver a mapping tool to inform long-term, resilient nature-based solutions to coastal erosion and flooding. 

Not only will the successful candidate have access to a range of supporting facilities, equipment and technical advice (including use of, and training in, GPS and UAV surveys, sediment analysis and molecular laboratories), but they will be supervised by scientists at the University of Plymouth and UKCEH with the combined expertise and experience to ensure project delivery. In addition, we will work closely with our partners at Defra throughout to ensure the project is informed by, and delivers, relevant management recommendations to the people who have to implement government policy.

CDTS118: Revealing the hidden identity and toxicity of priority chemical pollutants released during microplastic degradation and additive leaching in marine and coastal environments

Lead Supervisor: Dr Michael Wilde
2nd Academic Supervisor: Dr Matthew Cole
Associate Partner: Fugro Marine GB
Postgraduate researcher: Lucy Howarth-Foster

Project background and description

Micro- and nanoscale plastics produced from the decomposition of marine plastic debris pose a severe threat to marine and coastal ecosystems. Microplastics undergo degradation in the marine environment through abrasion (physical), advanced oxidation processes (abiotic), and biological degradation (biotic), resulting in the leaching of additives not chemically bound to the polymer matrix. These transformations dramatically increase the chemical complexity and analytical challenge of characterising microplastics and microplastic-derived organics (chemical leachate).

Aims and objectives for the successful candidate’s research

This project addresses the important question of which emerging chemical contaminants from microplastic degradation are priority targets for future marine surveillance and compliance monitoring of coastal waters. Successful outcomes will include the identification of persistent chemical additives in microplastic leachate, that do not degrade and pose a toxic threat to marine ecosystems.

The training the student will receive throughout the course of the PhD

This project represents a unique and diverse training opportunity, where you will learn various research techniques, gain practical experience using state-of-the-art analytical instrumentation, and establish an international, transdisciplinary network. You will have the opportunity to complete a CASE funded 3-month internship at Fugro Marine GB, world leading geo-data specialists, helping to deliver cutting edge and sustainable solutions to meet and manage ever changing environmental challenges and obligations.

The University of Plymouth has a long and world-renowned reputation in marine science and microplastic pollution, with excellent facilities in analytical and environmental chemistry. You will receive academic supervision and support from a dedicated, high profile, international network of interdisciplinary scientists from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, SINTEF Ocean and Fugro Marine GB.

How the project will be structured

You will develop a multi-modal approach towards studying chemical additives leaching from microplastics under environmentally relevant conditions.

Year 1 will focus on the chemical characterisation of environmentally relevant microplastic materials using a suite of instrumentation including comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography (GCxGC), mass spectrometry (MS), Raman and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR), and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Sampling and analysis plan will be co-developed with Fugro Marine GB.

In year 2, you will apply your optimised methods for studying chemical transformations during controlled photodegradation and leaching experiments, with the opportunity to validate these findings during a research visit to SINTEF Ocean, Norway.

Year 3 will focus on assessing the biological risk of degraded microplastics and microplastic leachate using recently developed standardised toxicity tests on marine copepods, generating ecotoxicological data within a dedicated microplastics facility at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.
Plymouth Marine Laboratory

CDTS111: Building evidence for action: Novel assessment of ocean acidification impacts around the UK

Awarding institution: University of Plymouth
Lead Supervisor: Dr Helen Findlay
2nd Academic Supervisor: Professor Martin Attrill
Associate Partner: DEFRA
Postgraduate researcher: Lily Anna Stokes


The impact of ocean acidification (OA) on UK marine species, habitats and ecosystem services is still not well understood. There is a growing need to understand stakeholders’ vulnerability, and what adaptation strategies may be most impactful to allow sustainable management of marine resources and minimise impacts on ecosystem services. Lack of sufficient evidence prevents OA from presently being included in policy in any meaningful way. This project addresses these gaps in knowledge and links to stakeholders by developing a novel spatially-resolved assessment of OA impacts to UK species, habitats and ecosystem services, building evidence that can inform action relating to OA impacts and adaptation.


The project will primarily be based at PML in Plymouth, with opportunities to spend time at the University of Plymouth and at DEFRA.

Aims and objectives

The research focuses on three objectives: 
  • Review the status of the UK marine environment in relation to OA and assess the vulnerability of key biota; 
  • Make projections of future risk to ecosystems and ecosystem services; 
  • Understand stakeholder vulnerabilities, potential adaptation strategies and barriers to action, and assess the potential impact of action on reducing the risk of OA. 
This information will directly feed into the Climate Evidence team at DEFRA.


This PhD includes training in interdisciplinary research, scientific data analysis, stakeholder engagement, ecosystem and economic modelling. The student will receive key skills training, and will be embedded in the SuMMeR CDT, the PML community, and benefit from collaboration with the University of Plymouth and DEFRA.

CDTS117: Butt Out: A transdisciplinary approach in understanding and addressing the risks of littered cigarette butts

Awarding institution: University of Plymouth
Lead Supervisor: Dr Matthew Cole
2nd Academic Supervisor:  Dr Kayleigh Wyles
Associate Partner: Marine Conservation Society (MCS)
Postgraduate researcher: Natalie Smith

Project description

Globally, cigarette butts are one of the predominant types of litter identified on coastlines. Such litter is an eyesore that can impact beach goers’ experience. Further, cigarette butts may pose harm to marine life, as each filter can release vast amounts of microscopic fibres contaminated with harmful chemicals that can be ingested by animals. 

In this PhD, you will undertake pioneering transdisciplinary research to explore the extent to which cigarette butts contaminate beaches, better understand the harm cigarette fibres can have on marine life and elucidate the behaviours resulting in beach littering, with a view to identifying and optimising suitable interventions to littering.

The student will work with an interdisciplinary supervisory team, comprising marine ecologists, ecotoxicologists and environmental psychologists, alongside associate partners at the Marine Conservation Society and Ash Wales, to co-develop methodologies that help address the following research questions: 

  • What is the extent of the problem? Opportunity to undertake field sampling and analysis to characterise cellulose acetate fibres in environmental settings, and couple with analysis of existing datasets. 
  • What are the ecological risks? Employ ecotoxicological testing of cellulose acetate fibres and leachates on ecologically important marine invertebrates (e.g. copepods, polychaetes, bivalve shellfish).
  • What are the drivers of littering behaviour? To draw on the vast literature in psychology to understand why people litter their cigarette butts. 
  • How can findings drive forward an effective intervention? Incorporating social and natural science research methods to test the effectiveness of an intervention on reducing the littering of cigarette butts. 
This PhD will provide a future research leader with an exciting, dynamic and challenging transdisciplinary project. The student will have access to excellent training opportunities in a wide range of employable skills (e.g. writing, communication, time management) and scientific practice (e.g. transdisciplinary working, experimental design, data management, statistics, disciplinary-specific expertise).

The project would suit a candidate with a passion for transdisciplinary research and a First or Upper Second class degree or equivalent within the theme of environmental science.