PhD researcher Natalie Muirhead-Davies: PML on marine conservation in Gibraltar

16th October 2023
Natalie Muirhead-Davies
PhD Researcher & Graduate Research and Teaching Assistant
Dr Awantha Dissanayake (UniGib)
Dr Matt Frost, Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), UK
PhD researcher, Natalie, has been researching strategies for marine management and conservation in UK overseas territories (UKOTs). Her research focuses on the pressures and challenges faced by UKOTs but also the types of conservation ‘tools’ are being used to assess and implement management measures to overcome such pressures and challenges.
After carrying out a global review (Muirhead-Davies and Dissanayake [in press]), she identified tourism, coastal development and overfishing to be biggest threats to the marine environment, human activities also reflected in reports from the UKOTs. Such issues are further compounded by limitations that prevent effective mitigation such as insufficient funding, staffing and resources.
The UK does provide some supplementary support through grants such as the Darwin Plus award and the Blue Belt Programme as well as providing some assistance through research. Although this type of support is useful for achieving short-term improvement, depending on the project, the benefits are either unsustainable once the funding ends or are not designed for longevity. For example, some UK organisations will conduct surveys and create inventories of species which, although useful as a starting point for further research and protection, have no immediate value.
With UKOTs frequently operating under these limiting conditions, Natalie’s research is looking for ways in which UKOTs can sustain their own effective conservation and management without the need for as much support from an external source and is assessing Gibraltar first and foremost. Gibraltar faces particularly unique challenges among the Overseas Territories; these include being closely bordered by other countries and transboundary coordination for conservation can be exceptionally difficult. Due to legislative and political barriers such as its departure with the UK from the EU (EU Exit), along with hosting many high-value companies meaning Gibraltar is considered ‘wealthy’, the country is often ineligible for additional funding and support.
It is imperative that these challenges be overcome effectively and soon. The Mediterranean, in which Gibraltar is situated, is particularly vulnerable to climate change. With one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, invasive species have also already begun to disrupt sensitive ecosystems. The fragile rocky reefs and sea pen beds could be lost forever if action is not taken soon and Natalie hopes her research will be a useful stepping stone towards this.
She is fortunate to be supported during her research by her two knowledgeable supervisors, Dr. Awantha Dissanayake and Dr. Matthew Frost. Dr. Dissanayake, Head of School (Marine & Environmental Sciences) at the University of Gibraltar, an experimental biologist with extensive experience, especially in marine monitoring and interdisciplinary approaches, brings a wealth of knowledge on Gibraltar’s marine environment and its management. Dr. Frost also brings a vast pool of knowledge and experience, he works extensively on international marine matters including the UK National Decade Committee and the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership Overseas Working Group. Both supervisors have provided Natalie with not just knowledge but also important networks and opportunities to promote her research, such as presenting a seminar at Plymouth Marine Laboratories (PML) in the summer of 2023. During her visit to PML, she was able to meet with experts in the field and gain further insight into the important inner workings of effective marine conservation, facilitated by both Dr. Dissanayake and Dr. Frost.
To watch the seminar, follow the link provided: