Research Profile | Sid Dewfall | MSc Marine Science & Climate Change

'Shooting the Stars’
2nd August 2023

Describe your MSc project?

My MSc research project was undertaken with the aim of highlighting the importance of the orange stony cup coral, Astroides calycularis, while assessing its distribution and health status within British Territorial Gibraltar Waters. The first aim of the project was to produce a robust baseline data set and develop a framework for future rapid ecological assessments on underwater 3D structures and reefs. This framework was devised to be a standardised, cheap, and effective transferable protocol for monitoring other benthic species. In order to do this, a critical literature review was carried out to systematically evaluate current monitoring protocols and programs across the globe.
Based on the literature, the photo-quadrat method was selected and thoroughly tested in order to finalise the monitoring technique used. During the months of April to June 2022, several dives were conducted on the west coast of Gibraltar to assess the distribution of the stony coral and evaluate potential study sites. The sites chosen were Batty’s Barge, an artificial reef within Camp Bay and Seven Sisters, a rocky reef in the north of Rosia Bay’s Marine Conservation Zone. Within the project’s data collection section, several dives were carried out at both sites to collect data on A. calycularis. Citizen divers were recruited to test and trial the usability of the monitoring protocol which also aided in increased sample collection, generating a larger baseline dataset on the stony cup coral within Gibraltar.

What type of research has it involved and what skills have you learned?

The initial part of my research consisted of a desk-based critical literature review. This preliminary phase involved multiple keyword searches using Google Scholar to filter through relevant scientific publications, reports, and grey literature. Through this stage, I discovered a variety of methods to synthesis and organise research, successfully collating relevant information into a literature review which fed into the foundation of my monitoring techniques.
The subsequent section involved a pilot study conducting dives and scrutinising the monitoring protocol using intrinsic feedback relating to quadrat placement and application of media capture. Upon completion of each dive, citizen divers provided qualitative feedback on the practical application of the monitoring program. Through evaluating the feedback, the monitoring program was adjusted, and videoing the quadrats was selected as the chosen form of media capture. Through this process, I developed additional skills as a scientific diver and also developed a more critical and analytic mindset. Underwater research can be very tricky due to the number of physical, mental, and external variables at play.
Once I had formulated and tested the monitoring program, in situ research was conducted to collect sample photo-quadrats of 243 A. calycularis colonies. Each of these colonies were observed, analysing colony size and the total visible alive surface area per colony. After comparing a number of software’s, including BIIGLE and Image-J, PhotoQuad was selected to assess coral health and size via percentage cover and alive/dead ratios per colony. This software was favoured for its ease of use and the quadrat boundary detection functionality although it took some time to familiarise with.

Were there any partners/stakeholders on your project?

Dive Charters and their employees were a major partner within this project offering support through the use of equipment and through added data collection from citizen engagement. The Friends of Gibraltar Heritage Society (FOGHS) also supported the project by sponsoring the funding for the PADI Distinctive Speciality, an outcome of the methodology used in this project. This professional course links PADI and divers worldwide to the project as the promotion of this Distinctive Specialty may lead to the development of future databases and collaboration between scientists and PADI, supporting future research and promoting healthier oceans. Data collected by divers across the globe may add to data sets for monitoring different benthic communities and analysing trends that may occur temporally or even spatially depending on the impacts of climate change and the anthropogenic activities. Finally, the Department of Environment, Sustainability, Climate Change and Heritage (DESCCH) are a significant stakeholder, now benefiting from the baseline dataset on distribution and health status of A. calycularis. Continuous monitoring across Gibraltar will allow for comparisons over longer periods of time to observe and evaluate relative occurrences in Gibraltar’s marine environment, using A. calycularis as an indicator species for changes in water quality and climate change.

Why should the public know about this topic?

Astroides calycularis acts as a bioindicator species for climate change and water quality. The species is extremely vulnerable to environmental instability and monitoring it in Gibraltar will inform on any changes taking place in the marine environment. Through the use of the monitoring program suggested, local divers and marine enthusiasts can track changes in the distribution and health status of A. calycularis and inform other relevant parties such as DESCCH who can take any further action as required.

What is the wider impact of your research?

This research is the first of its kind on the distribution and health status of A. calycularis on the west side of BGTW. Having completed the research prior to the OS 35 incident in August 2022, the results act as a snapshot of the condition of the marine environment prior to such heavy oil spills. Continuing to build-upon from the baseline dataset will allow for the observation of changes within our waters and the possible quantification on the impacts from the OS 35 bulk carrier disaster.
Furthermore, this research can be carried out with more species within and outside of Gibraltar. The monitoring program is malleable to other species here inside the bay, but also across the globe. Citizen divers interested in protecting their local environment can use the foundations of this research to monitor species within their waters and track changes both spatially and temporally.

Comments from Head of School

Sid’s research is hugely significant in understanding the health of a vulnerable stony coral species within Gibraltar’s waters and present within the wider Western Mediterranean. Overall, the coral colonies found within Camp Bay and Seven Sisters are deemed to be 90 % healthy. Baseline research into the health of this species can help long-term monitoring efforts to understand how this iconic coral species can be a ‘canary in the coal mine’ as indicators of climate and environmental change.
We would like to thank Dive Charters in support of this important research.
Dr Awantha Dissanayake, Head of School (Marine & Environmental Sciences)
  • MSc

    Master in Marine Science & Climate Change

    Designed and delivered by expert academics and scientists, this full or part-time interdisciplinary programme blends theoretical study with practical, field-based work. You will cover specialist subject areas and gain the skills required to tackle the complex issues associated with the sustainable development of marine ecosystems.[...]

    1 Year

    No Placement option

    Full Time

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