Issue 4 – Marine biology at the University of Portsmouth

By Gordon Watson

The Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth.

The Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth.

Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city. It is a city steeped in maritime heritage and intimately linked to the sea. It was the site of the world’s first naval dock established in the 1500s to “build the king’s ships”. In line with the nation’s increasing dependence on sea power, the city became a hub of maritime industries with Portsmouth dockyard described in 1800 as the world’s largest industrial complex. This industrial and military might has supported some of the most famous ships in the world such as Admiral Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory (Figure 1), which can be seen today at Portsmouth’s historic dry dock. In recent years the economies of the city and the Solent region have had to diversify, but the link to the marine environment of this ‘blue economy’, for example through tourism (Spinnaker Tower, Figure 2), sailing (Ben Ainslie’s racing team HQ) or marine renewable energy (testing off the Isle of Wight) is still paramount.

The ecological heritage of the Solent’s coastal habitats and the species within them is nationally and internationally important, and under threat from the expansion of industry and human use within Portsmouth and the wider Solent region. To protect these habitats and species a plethora of conservation areas have been established. The Solent is a European Marine Site (SEMS) with nearly every part of its coast protected under EU Natura 2000 legislation (SACs and SPAs), SSSIs or local nature reserves. The UK government’s aim of producing an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) has also identified many more sites within the region.

As a marine biology student of the University of Portsmouth you are, therefore, ideally placed to study the exploitation, damage and conservation of the marine environment—key themes of 21st century marine biology. The University of Portsmouth has a long tradition of teaching marine biology that started in the early 1960s. However, marine sciences research in Portsmouth has been happening for close to 80 years, and since the late 1990s at the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS).

Unlike a number of other UK universities which have constrained marine biology research and teaching to city-centre based facilities, IMS is about as close as you can get to the marine environment without getting your feet wet! Located on a shingle spit at the mouth of Langstone Harbour, the sea is only 5 metres away at high tide (Figures 3 and 4). This location provides unrivalled access to the varied ecosystems of the Solent including sediment shores, salt marshes, dune systems, estuaries and numerous manmade facilities (such as marinas and coastal defences). Strong emphasis is, therefore, placed on field and practical skills (Figures 6 and 7) with a week-long residential field trip in year two and numerous trips embedded within all years to marinas, dune systems, an aquaculture facility, rocky shores and a marina, to name but a few.

The Institute of Marine Sciences, Portsmouth.

The Institute of Marine Sciences, Portsmouth.

IMS also provides access to UK-leading facilities in our purpose-built aquatics centre. Filtered seawater is supplied to over 300 tanks ranging in size from 30 to 6000 litres in both outdoor and environmentally controlled conditions. The systems can provide pristine water quality enabling us to maintain any type of organism (including Home Office licensed species). An inshore and soon-to-be acquired offshore research vessel enable access to difficult-to-reach habitats.

The interaction of humans with the marine environment is an overarching theme of much of the research at IMS and the University of Portsmouth Environment Network (UPEN). This theme is composed of three sub-areas—these are listed below with some examples of recent projects undertaken. Supporting and underpinning these applied areas is the curiosity-driven research across a wide range of habitats and scales including: mangrove and coral reef ecology; plankton; algal biology; soft-sediment ecology; larval biology; trophic interactions; parasitism; and vertebrate ecology.

Exploitation: aquaculture for the marine aquarium trade, coastal fisheries surveys, biofuel generation from marine invertebrate enzymes, biofilms and novel compounds in antifouling and marine protection.
Damage: ecotoxicology and the impacts of pollutants such as pharmaceuticals; non-native species, coastal fisheries, and the effects of ocean acidification and climate change.
Protection: conservation and management of fish stocks and benthic sediment systems using MPAs, and mangrove management.

The research-enhanced curriculum (especially in the third year) ensures that students are learning material and developing skills at the cutting edge of marine biology, and taught by academics who are world-leaders in their field. Our recent REF 2014 score confirms this excellence—100% of our research impact in the environmental-related area was classed as outstanding or very considerable in terms of reach and significance, and 72% of our research outputs were classed as world leading or internationally excellent. Our research income also saw a three-fold increase compared to the previous assessment period.

Students undertaking rocky shore field work on the south coast of England.

Students undertaking rocky shore field work on the south coast of England.

Students will experience this multi-disciplinary research environment directly during their final year project (working alongside postgraduates, doctoral scientists and academics in multi-user laboratories). Project supervisors provide titles, which align with their own research areas, but a student’s own idea can also be developed as a project. For those students who want a more exotic location than the UK, the project system is flexible, thus enabling students to complete practical work at other research facilities. We have strong links with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and through the EU Erasmus scheme many European universities and institutes. These links make, if you will pardon the marine-based pun, the world your oyster when it comes to projects.

The university offers a variety of IMarEST accredited and Society of Biology recognized degrees including three year (BSc Marine Biology) and four year (Masters in Marine Biology) degree programmes in addition to taught (MSc in Applied Aquatic Biology) and research-focused MRes, MPhil and PhD programmes. A popular feature of the BSc Marine Biology pathway is that first year units are shared with other degrees. This flexibility allows the student to experience a wide range of subjects before confirming initial selection at the end of their first year, enabling students to tailor their degree to suit their individual interests. For example, basic and scientific SCUBA diving units can be taken that make up part of the second year, or aquatic microbiology or global climate change options can be chosen from in the third year.

Over the last 50 years our marine-based undergraduate and postgraduate degrees have produced countless students who have gone on to have successful careers in a wide variety of sectors (including environmental consultancies, academic and industrial research, conservation NGOs, government agencies, and teaching), and with many also going on to further study at academic institutions across the globe. As far as the understanding of the marine environment goes marine scientists have only just dipped their toes in the water. However, for the world to have healthy and productive seas for future generations there is so much more to learn, and there is so much that needs to be fixed. We hope that for the next 50 years, we will be able to continue to develop passionate marine biologists who will contribute to making our seas a better place.

Gordon Watson
(gordon.watson@port.ac.uk)

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