PhD Project 2

Investigating methods for a multi-faceted approach to determine distribution and habitat use of harbour porpoises to inform management content

Investigating methods for a multi-faceted approach to determine distribution and habitat use of harbour porpoises to inform management

This project is based at Shetland UHI and SAMS UHI, Oban

HPs are the UKs most numerous cetacean, occurring in all coastal areas and are particularly vulnerable to disturbance from human activities. Pressures on the marine systems that support HP are increasing due to climate change and growth of multiple marine industries. Management tools to reduce such anthropogenic impacts include the development of marine plans and the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs). HP’s are protected under several pieces of legislation and are EPS and PMFs. Engaging local communities in data collection can increase buy-in and ultimately compliance with management measures.

To manage existing and emerging pressures on marine mammals a better understanding of the temporal and spatial variance of this species is required, including consideration of its ecology and behaviour. Around the Shetland archipelago limited information is available on the spatial and temporal distribution of HPs, although unusual mega-pods of over 100 have been locally documented. In addition, the extent of co-occurrence with current anthropogenic activities is largely unknown. This studentship is a collaboration between the University of Highlands and Islands (supervisors Rachel Shucksmith- Shetland UHI and Professor Ben Wilson SAMS UHI), Heriot Watt University (supervisor Dr Lauren McWhinnie), Marine Scotland Science (supervisor Dr Ross Culloch) and NatureScot (Karen Hall). In addition, it is supported by Shetland Community Wildlife Group (SCWG) and Whale and Dolphin Conservation Scotland (WDCS).

The studentship will focus on 4 key objectives:

Objective 1: Investigating the use of ‘citizen science’ methodologies for monitoring HP and providing information related to presence, abundance and distribution

Objective 2: Explore the use of drones, shore based visual observations and digital imagery to gain a better understanding of fine scale area use e.g calving, feeding and mating areas

Objective 3: Establishing a baseline understanding of harbour porpoise spatial and temporal use in the Shetland archipelago

Objective 4: Investigating current and future coastal pressures on harbour porpoises in a range of future scenarios (e.g. renewable development and climate change)  

This studentship will have access to existing visual shore-based sightings, aerial and land-based imagery and acoustic data sets held by UHI, Heriot Watt University, Marine Scotland Science, NatureScot, WDCS and SCWG. Through additional fieldwork these data will be analysed to inform conservation and monitoring efforts for harbour porpoise in Shetland. The results and outputs will have wider applicability to all Scottish, UK and international waters where this species is found.

The student will be primarily based at Shetland UHI, however they will have the opportunity to spend time at both Heriot Watt, Marine Scotland Science (MSS) and SAMS UHI for training in software and data analysis. Engagement with MSS, NatureScot, Shetland Community Wildlife Group and Shetland Marine Planning Partnership will allow the student to gain experience across sectors, where they will form an understanding of how science can feed into advisory and regulatory processes, such as marine spatial planning, and conservation and management. 

The student will also attend SUPER training events throughout the PhD studentship.


The start date of this project is: 3 October 2022

Contacts and supervisory team for this project: content

Contacts and supervisory team for this project:

Project specific enquiries:

Rachel Shucksmith, Rachel.shucksmith@uhi.ac.uk

General enquiries: Graduate School Office gradresearch@uhi.ac.uk

Supervisory team (click name to view research profile):

Rachel Shucksmith (UHI)

Ben Wilson (SAMS UHI)

Lauren McWhinnie (Heriot Watt)