'Capturing our Coast' (CoCoast) is an ongoing citizen science project aiming to discover more about the species that live in our seas and how we can protect them. CoCoast believes that the responsibility for protecting our seas and wonderful marine biodiversity belongs to all of us. Here, I speak to Dr Siobhan Vye, project officer, and Hannah Earp, field assistant , at the CoCoast hub at Bangor University to learn more about CoCoast, how you can get involved and how embracing all opportunities will help kick-start your conservation career!
NB: Since conducting this interview, the first stage of the CoCoast project has come to an end. However, the project was an excellent success and there will be more to follow, so read on!
What is CoCoast and what are your roles within the project?
Siobhan: Capturing our Coast is a nation wide, marine citizen science project that aims to train and support a network of coastal surveyors around the UK. Volunteers collect data which will help us to understand more about the abundance and distribution of both animal and seaweed species on our shores. My role is 'Project Officer'. I coordinate the project in the North Wales region, and that includes anything from organising field work and field dates to coordinating volunteer communications. I also work within the national team, to ensure the CoCoasts' work is achieved at a national level as well.
Hannah: My role is as a 'Field Assistant' at the Bangor University hub for CoCoast. I assist the day to day running of the project in North Wales. I do quite a lot of fieldwork, going out and running events for our volunteers, supporting them in the field, and a lot of day to day organisation, helping volunteers and designing new activities. Basically my role is to try and make the science fun.
What sort of projects are CoCoast running at the moment?
Siobhan: We have a lot of things going on at the moment! The main projects are the independent surveys, where volunteers go out and survey their chosen set of species. This is supported by field support events, where Hannah or myself will go along and provide survey and fieldwork advice. In addition to that we are currently finishing an experiment that has been conducted through CoCoast on a national level, called 'Race to Recovery'. Race to Recovery gives citizen scientists a real chance to contribute meaningfully to a purely ecological experiment. We also have another independent survey going on at the moment called 'Seaweed vs. Limpets' where people go to the shore and collect information on the balance between seaweed and limpets. In addition to the field events we also run social events, for example, we had a pub quiz a couple of weeks ago, organised by Hannah.
Hannah: We also have some smaller campaigns for people who haven't necessarily undergone the CoCoast training. These are 'anytime, anywhere' surveys. 'Marine Invaders' is an example of one of these campaigns, where people can go out onto their local shore and look for different invasive species. 'Beach Babies' is a similar campaign, where people can go out and look for juvenile species or the eggs of various different species on their local shore. These two projects don't require any training, so anyone can get involved straight away.
Why do you work in the marine/conservation sector?
Hannah: This is cliché, but I spent a lot of my youth down on the beaches around Anglesey, and that is where I enjoyed spending time, so I picked up an interest in science and biology that way, rather than through the terrestrial side of biology. I then did a degree at Bangor University, and from that I wanted a job where I got up in the morning and looked forward to going to work.
Siobhan: From the conservation side of things, I have always been an 'outdoorsy' person, so that was always going to end up with me working in the outdoors. From the marine side of things, I am a bit more unusual than other marine scientists in that I fell into marine science rather than having a love of marine life from a young age. It was more that I wanted to go to university to study some form of biology. Marine biology looked the most interesting because it had the most amount of 'unknown'. It was also new to me and very different from the standard A level biology topics. I got to the end of my degree and didn't really know what I wanted to do. An ideal PhD opportunity came up for me, so I completed a PhD and ended up at CoCoast because it allowed me to continue doing what I love.
What steps have you taken in your career that have allowed you to get to where you are today?
Siobhan: Key steps for me were my undergraduate degree in marine biology and oceanography, but during my undergraduate I also assisted researchers during the holidays, so I was making an active effort to gain experience outside of my degree. This allowed me to gain the references I needed to gain a PhD. I also developed lots of connections by assisting researchers, which again came in really handy for my PhD.
Hannah: I followed a similar path to Siobhan in that I also studied marine biology and oceanography, but I did a year out in Australia as part of my degree as well. I also did a lot of diving throughout my degree, gaining experience in diving in cold water, working in Holyhead marina. I pursued this through my dissertation, looking at the effects of diving on coral reefs. When I graduated, I then went out to the Philippines and worked for the charity that collected all the data I used in my dissertation. So I was able to develop and build on a tropical marine point of interest. I then did a masters in tropical marine biology in Germany, and carried out my masters research in Polynesia. Now I am hoping to go onto a PhD but I wanted to work for a little bit, and CoCoast has given me that opportunity.
How can projects such as CoCoast help and encourage those who are interested in conservation?
Siobhan: CoCoast is an opportunity to gain free skills! You can utilise the fact that you have marine scientists on hand to improve your ID skills, get more field and survey experience. CoCoast offers a wide range of activities in the intertidal zones, giving you an idea of what kind of things you can go on to research yourselves. There are a range of techniques you can learn through CoCoast.
Hannah: We also have events where we have scientists on hand from Bangor university which is a good opportunity for networking with professors, lecturers and other members of the public that might work within the conservation sector. So CoCoast offers both free skill and networking opportunities.
What advice would you give to someone wishing to enter into a conservation based career?
Siobhan: Say yes to any opportunity that passes your way. Even if that opportunity is identifying worms in a lab for hours on end. The key thing is taking advantage of all opportunities, even if its not something you really enjoy or is not in your field of interest. If you take every opportunity then you build up an excellent array of experience and this experience is what gives you an advantage when it comes to looking for paid positions in what is a very competitive field. Show enthusiasm as well. One of the reasons we hired Hannah is because she was so enthusiastic. Enthusiasm goes a long way and shows people you are going to be hard working and reliable.
Hannah: Being persistent is also key. You have to contact lots of people to search for opportunities, explaining your skill set and trying to find research opportunities you can assist with. This is also an excellent chance to network, because not everyone will reply to emails etc, but somebody will, and this will get your foot in the door.
So, whether you have been passionate about the coast and marine conservation from a young age, or whether you 'fell' into marine science to explore the unknown, Capturing our Coast is an excellent way to develop and hone your survey skills, and even better, its free!