How an American seaweed researcher ended up in the Gaeltacht

29 Jan 2020

Augusts Pendleton is completing an MSc in geography at NUI Galway . Image: Augusts Pendleton

With a love for the ocean, Augustus Pendleton travelled to study seaweed at NUI Galway with an Irish-English dictionary in hand.

Augustus Pendleton graduated with a degree in microbiology from the University of Minnesota, studying bacterial physiology and gaining skills in genetics and biochemistry. He undertook research internships at the University of Maine Darling Marine Center, focusing on topics such as coral reproduction and fungal pathogens that threaten killer whales and porpoises.

He is currently completing an MSc in geography at NUI Galway as a 2019-2020 Fulbright Student Awardee.

‘I believe that Irish seaweed harvesters need to have their voices heard’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Growing up in the American midwest, water has always been incredibly important to me, whether it was sailing on Lake Michigan or fly fishing for brook trout with my grandpa.

The ocean, however, was always pure magic. I was enamoured with the mystery of the ocean, shivering at the thought of monstrous fishes suspended in the darkness of the deep sea or imagining the sacrosanct silence of kelp forests. I was as obsessed with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as I was with Harry Potter; both were equally magical in my eyes.

However, as I studied more marine biology, so many of the stories I read – such as corals bleaching, fisheries collapsing – were tragic. I felt that I needed to be on the front line of ocean research.

Science helps us understand how to better manage our ocean resources. I want my own work to help ensure that the oceans’ resources continue to sustainably support coastal communities without destroying the incredible environments with which I first fell in love.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I received my undergraduate in microbiology, and I loved the research I did in that field.

However, I sometimes felt that my work was too far removed from immediate application in the real world, so I looked for a programme which combined science with policy and spatial planning.

That’s why the MSc at NUI Galway was a perfect fit. I got in contact with Dr Liam Carr – a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar to Ireland – and together we designed my current project.

Seaweed has been harvested in Ireland for centuries and holds tremendous ecological and socio-economic value, especially within Gaeltacht areas in the west of Ireland. This industry is rapidly changing, however.

Seaweed products are becoming more popular, licensing frameworks are being reviewed and potentially updated, and several ambitious companies are aiming to expand and modernise seaweed harvesting.

Amidst all this change, I believe that Irish seaweed harvesters need to have their voices heard. My research seeks to understand how Irish seaweed harvesters view and respond to these changes, particularly the licensing regulations.

I want to examine how harvesters perceive threats to their business and way of life, and what supports or guidance the government and development agencies – such as Údarás na Gaeltachta – can supply to them.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Political changes – including the publication of the National Marine Planning Framework and the upcoming general election – have the capacity to change how Ireland’s seaweed resource is exploited, alongside EU-funded projects and investments from international companies.

These changes could have huge impacts on seaweed harvesters’ businesses. What’s more, these economic and political changes occur in the larger – and perhaps more frightening – context of climate change and ocean acidification.

It is imperative that the perspectives, resources and challenges of seaweed harvesters are understood and used to craft policy that supports these communities and the environment from which they make their living.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The deliverables of my research can help inform the planning and management of seaweed harvesting in the west of Ireland. Currently, a lack of clarity exists between the licensing process for seaweed harvesters and how rights to the where and how of harvesting seaweed are determined.

A better understanding of the socioeconomic landscape which governs seaweed harvesting would allow for clear and effective licensing policies, allowing greater investment certainty and growth potential for seaweed harvesting and seaweed product businesses.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

For one, I’m a young American, going around the west of Ireland asking seaweed harvesters the biggest challenges that face their businesses. I work hard to be openly respectful and unbiased, alongside relying on word of mouth and branching connections to find new people with whom I can speak.

Perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve encountered is my own fault. I thought it would be fun to learn Irish so I can meet community members more naturally as I work within Gaeltacht areas. I never would have expected what a challenging and rewarding language it could be.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I think the first might be that human geography and social sciences lack scientific rigour, practical application or commercial impact. Though they exist outside the controlled setting of a laboratory, there is an important source of wisdom within these communities. The application of which can have positive implications in the Irish economy, the coastal environment and the cultural sustainability of Ireland’s beautiful west coast.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Ireland has set serious and ambitious goals to expand its blue economy, including large developments in seaweed harvesting and aquaculture (shellfish and fin fish). For these projects to be successful, consistent and effective, community stakeholder engagement will continue to be important.

How these developments can best benefit coastal communities while preserving the environment will also require dedicated, interdisciplinary research.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.