PhD Project 1

Climate change adaptation: Evaluating long-term resilience of the Scottish Marine Protected Area network content

Climate change adaptation: Evaluating long-term resilience of the Scottish Marine Protected Area network

This project is based at SAMS UHI, Oban

Background: Climate change is driving ongoing rapid change in marine environments worldwide, leading to shifts in species’ distributions as they track their ‘climate envelopes’ (the range of climatic conditions underpinning long-term persistence). This has consequences for long-term conservation management. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are an important component of modern marine conservation practice, but their contribution to conservation may evolve under climate change. Ensuring continued resilience in marine conservation management under these conditions represents a significant challenge for marine managers and will have implications for marine users.

Project aims: The proposed project aims to critically evaluate the resilience of the current Scottish Marine Protected Area (MPA) network in the face of projected climate change to 2045 (by when Scotland seeks to achieve Net Zero CO2 emission status) and beyond, based on climate envelopes of selected features (species/habitats) for which these protected areas were originally designated, and explore planning/policy ramifications.

Description: The proposed PhD project will require the student to engage with two broad research work streams, operating in parallel with significant linkages between them. The first work stream will focus on evaluating the likelihood of changes in abundance and/or distributions of certain species for which MPAs have been designated in Scottish waters, across a range of IPCC climate change projections. The project will use representative species of conservation concern from the Scottish Priority Marine Features (PMF) list as case studies, based on life history characteristics that influence their potential sensitivity to climate change. Species will be chosen to represent different modes of exposure to changing climates: (1) species with non-mobile adults such as seagrasses (Zostera sp.) and horse mussels (Modiolus modiolus), (2) intermediate-mobility species that might range over 10s-100s of km, such as flapper skate (Dipturus intermedius), and (3) high-mobility species that might range over 100s-1000s of km, such as harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus). Each chosen species will be characterised by their ‘climate envelopes’. Spatial shifts in each chosen species’ climate envelope over time (“climate velocity”) give expectations for future changes in target species’ distributions and abundance. Predictive conservation planning models will be used to understand predicted changes in species’ distributions over time, building on the climate velocity concept while considering potential ‘climate refuges’ and risks of climatic bottlenecks/cul-de-sacs to produce predictive risk assessments. This will inform understanding to what extent Scotland’s MPA network will continue to provide adequate protection to these species under predicted climate change scenarios of varying severity.

The second work stream will seek to evaluate potential policy/planning consequences of expected changes to species’ distributions, and the continued role of the Scottish MPA network as a conservation tool, explored in the first work stream under scenarios of progressive climate change. Using examples developed under the first work stream, the project will build on current Scottish MPA policy to assess existing MPA management strategies for different species in light of climate change impacts, and make recommendations as to how conservation objectives for such species might continue to be met. At the same time, wider ongoing benefits provided by MPAs (resilience, ecosystem services, socioeconomic benefits to communities etc.) will be considered to determine at which point changes to the existing MPA network might be warranted, but equally explore the advantages of maintaining MPAs in their current form. This work stream will focus on a participatory engagement process with stakeholders in a time of change, a review of which marine management tools (e.g. marine planning) are likely to be useful under climate change and Net Zero scenarios, and an evaluation of what policy instruments are suited to achieve multiple policy objectives in the MPA network while building societal acceptance. The project will explore use of the Delphi method, where expert knowledge relating to species’ shifting distributions under identified climate scenarios (first work stream) and available management measures (second work stream) will be evaluated by marine stakeholders in a participatory process to identify areas of consensus. Likely conflicts/synergies with other stakeholders will also be identified in this manner.

Collectively, this project seeks to generate scientific outcomes feeding into policy recommendations that, if adopted, would result in enhanced resilience of the Scottish MPA network and its contribution to Scotland’s wider approach to marine conservation over the coming decades.

The start date of this project is: 3 October 2022

We will be particularly interested in applicants with the following background, experience or interest:

  • Numerate and familiar with coding in R, and willing to engage with climate modelling products and MPA design software (including MARXAN) combined with species distribution models (e.g. Maxent). These should be considered essential attributes for a successful candidate.
  • Although a social science background is not essential, experience with mixed methods, social surveys and/ or policy analysis would be an advantage, as would a willingness to develop these skills.
  • Applicants should be genuinely interested in how marine science can influence policy, and be willing to engage in intensive interaction with stakeholders. Demonstrable prior experience engaging with stakeholders would be an advantage.
  • Familiarity with Scotland’s marine species and habitats, current Scottish marine conservation policy, and the role of Marine Protected Areas in Scotland would be an advantage.
  • A general familiarity with climate change pressures and potential future scenarios in the marine environment would be an advantage.
Contacts and supervisory team for this project: content

Contacts and supervisory team for this project:

Project specific enquiries:

General enquiries: Graduate School Office

Supervisory team (click name to view research profile):

Dr Steven Benjamins, SAMS UHI

Prof Tavis Potts, University of Aberdeen