Sophie Corrigan

PhD Biological Sciences

I am now over half way through the second year of my PhD at the University of Exeter, working in collaboration with the MBA and Cefas. My project, “Evaluating and maximising the environmental benefits of seaweed farming in the Southwest”, focuses on quantifying the habitat value and biodiversity supported by seaweed farms in the UK. The aim of this work is to help inform the regulation and development of ecosystem-based approaches for the sustainable expansion of seaweed cultivation around the UK. Each chapter of my thesis intends to provide critical evidence into the habitat value of seaweed cultivation for farmers, fisheries, policy makers and stakeholders with the aims of each chapter summarised in the diagram below:

So far I have completed work for the first three chapters of my PhD (aims 1-3 in the diagram), with a literature review written to evaluate the potential habitat value of seaweed farms for species from microorganisms to megafauna. This review focuses on describing the methods used to quantify habitat value of seaweed aquaculture and is currently being submitted for publication. This will help inform regulation and generate more information on the potential ecosystem services seaweed aquaculture provides to quantify their potential economic and ecological value beyond direct consumable products. Concurrently I have also contributed to a report for Natural England with collaborators from the MBA and SAMS entitled “Seaweed aquaculture and mechanical harvesting: an evidence review to support sustainable management”. I have also started collaborating with other researchers on a further ARCH-UK report outlining the benefits of extractive aquaculture in the UK, which includes both seaweed and shellfish farming. These reports will both aid in the sustainable expansion of seaweed farms around the UK, with direct implications for an expanding industry.

In terms of practical work, so far all samples have been collected and processed for chapters 2 and 3, which aim to assess epibiont diversity of cultivated seaweed compared to mussel aquaculture and wild populations and determine whether it supports novel assemblages. This work will also aid seaweed farmers in optimising their harvest schedules to avoid detrimental biofouling, and we are trialling different harvesting techniques with them to try and maximise both habitat and crop value of the site simultaneously. Thanks to the continued support from the Fishmongers Charitable Trust, we have conducted the first set of benthic samples at BIOME Algae’s farm in St Austell Bay in June 2021, with a second survey scheduled for June 2022 to determine the impact of a new seaweed farm at the site. Due to COVID, the camera surveys we initially planned for this summer have been postponed to June 2022, however I am very much looking forward to this work to determine how pelagic fish species interact with the site and to gain new knowledge on how to use camera surveys as an effective surveying technique. I have also received training in new statistics software to analyse results for my work and attended a weeklong statistics course to further my understanding. This will directly feed into the results and outputs of my work and subsequent papers written for all of my chapters.

In addition to my thesis work, I have also attended several online conferences and networking events including the International Society for Applied Phycology (ISAP 2021), the Marine Biological postgraduate conference, where I gave a talk and presented a poster of my research and won prizes for both in my categories, and also presented at ARCH-UK’s Southwest research seminar. These were great networking opportunities where I met with industry experts from farmers, to suppliers, to academic researcher and NGOs, and they generated much interest about our work and seaweed cultivation in general.

Thanks to the Fishmongers Charitable Trust I have also helped to supervise Cameron Walker’s work relating to how seaweed cultivation affects harmful algal blooms, with a future publication on the horizon. I have also been contracted as a scientific consultant alongside other researchers from the MBA on an art project by artist Yva Jung, which focuses on “how the sea breathes”. For this I have contributed towards a NERC climate, arts and science bid, which we hope to hear back from by the end of the month.

Thank you very much for the continued support I have received from the Fishmongers Charities Trust. I have been having a very productive and enjoyable PhD experience so far, and I look forward to keeping you updated on my progress in the future.