‘People think marine biology is like an episode of Blue Planet – it’s not’

13 Dec 2017

Dr Mark Jessopp, research fellow at University College Cork. Image: Mark Jessop/Science Foundation Ireland

Dr Mark Jessopp of UCC has spent decades visiting the polar regions, and he says that our perception of this life is different to reality.

Not much of the world can claim to be true wilderness any more but, at the north and south poles, there remains vast tracts of land and ice where only a few hardened researchers find themselves returning to – or living in – each year.

One such researcher is Dr Mark Jessopp, a marine biologist currently working as a research fellow at University College Cork (UCC).

After obtaining his bachelor degree in zoology from the University of Melbourne in 1995, his research took him to the British Antarctic Survey to monitor seal, penguin and albatross populations.

It was then, in 2003, that he travelled to Ireland where he undertook a PhD on the design and monitoring of marine reserves.

Eventually arriving at UCC to study higher predators, Jessopp now has 40 scientific papers to his name in journals such as Science, Nature and Current Biology, and is the Irish representative on the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea working group on marine renewable energy.

In November, Jessopp was named as Science Foundation Ireland’s winner of the Research Image of the Year award for his photograph entitled Osmotic Shock.

The photo shows seabirds foraging on marine zooplankton, which have been stunned by the freshwater output from glacial meltwater.

Osmotic shock

Image: Dr Mark Jessopp/Science Foundation Ireland

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I excelled at maths and science from an early age, and was inevitably branded a nerd. After being thrown in the school skip for what seemed the 10th time by the anti-nerd squad, I resolved to pursue a life where curiosity was considered a benefit rather than a target.

Research was a natural career choice. There wasn’t a particular moment I recall thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life’ but, like many biologists, I grew up watching nature documentaries showing stunning locations and revealing complex animal behaviours.

I have always been fascinated by the marine realm and how very little we know about it, and these documentaries provided the germ of an idea that you could actually do this for a living and get to hang out in some seriously remarkable places.

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

Together with a colleague, Dr Tom Hart of Oxford University, we started a pilot programme to see if we could monitor seabirds remotely in the Arctic.

By making a single visit to a seabird colony for just one or two hours per year, we could set up monitoring cameras that provide images of seabirds at their nests for the whole year … to find the timing of breeding as well as eventual breeding success.

With Zooniverse, we created Seabirdwatch, a citizen-science programme where people around the world contribute to seabird monitoring and conservation by helping us identify seabirds in our images.

While the platform only launched in October 2017, our citizen scientists have already identified more than 320,000 seabirds in images taken from colonies in the high Arctic to south-west Ireland.

Our next step is to use this dataset to use computer vision and machine-learning algorithms to ‘train’ a computer to recognise birds in images, and automate the whole process.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

We have an obligation to protect our natural resources, not just from a legislative point of view, but from a moral one.

Seabirds are key indicators of ocean health, but are in global decline due to various pressures including fisheries, habitat change, disturbance in breeding colonies and predation.

To halt these declines, we need to understand the causes, but monitoring at the scales required to disentangle local impacts from wider climate processes is incredibly time-consuming and costly.

I believe this research provides a viable way of understanding key components of marine ecosystems as well as contributing to conservation.

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

As a researcher in seabird ecology, the biggest challenges would be associated with the environment I work in.

During fieldwork in the Arctic, polar bear encounters are possible and I am required by law to have a rifle for protection against polar bears at all times.

Sea-ice conditions have often prevented us from getting access to certain seabird colonies and, in one instance, an avalanche managed to take out one of our monitoring cameras, resulting in zero data for that location in that year.

Even in more temperate locations like Ireland, many seabirds nest on small offshore islands, battered by the full force of the Atlantic Ocean, and high swell has often delayed getting on to (or off from) field sites for weeks at a time.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?

Most of the misconceptions are in the name of the field. As an undergraduate in zoology, the most common response to asking what I was studying was: “So, you want to work in a zoo?”

Progressing to marine biologist also has its fair share of misconceptions, with the usual assumption that I spend six months of the year in warm tropical waters, lounging on boats watching dolphins and whales. They are often really interested to hear that I tend to specialise in colder climates.

I think a lot of people also see biology as a ‘softer’ science but, because of so many processes happening simultaneously in natural systems, analysing biological datasets often requires advanced statistics skills.

It’s definitely not a career choice for people thinking it’s all like an episode of [BBC documentary series] Blue Planet.

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

Unfortunately, we know that 77pc of global fisheries are either fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.

This is having a huge negative impact on marine ecosystems. I see a huge challenge in ensuring that we balance our increasing global food needs with those of the marine populations, such as seabirds, which are also reliant on them.