‘As a subtidal scientist in Ireland, the biggest challenge is the weather!’

25 Jul 2018

Dr Kathryn Schoenrock, marine botanist at NUI Galway. Image: NUI Galway

NUI Galway’s Dr Kathryn Schoenrock is helping us better understand the vast kelp forests surrounding Ireland, regardless of the weather.

Originally from California, Dr Kathryn Schoenrock is a marine botanist who did her undergraduate degree in marine biology at the University of California Santa Cruz.

She worked as a technician on academic research teams before completing her master’s degree and PhD on the chemical ecology of polar seaweeds and their response to climate change. This, she admits, got her hooked on polar seaweeds and their adaptations to extreme environments.

After going on to work with a team to study algal communities in Greenland, she now works with Dr Dagmar Stengel in botany and plant science at the School of Natural Sciences and the Ryan Institute in NUI Galway.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

My parents are big fans of John Steinbeck, and reading Cannery Row and Sea of Cortez when I was younger sparked my interest in exploring the ocean.

I have always been in the ocean and continue to be thrilled to just sit on the seafloor and watch all the seaweed and animal behaviours play out.

People that really inspired me to continue in research have been my mentors and fellow researchers/colleagues who continue to ask important questions about marine ecosystems and their response to climate change.

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

My research focuses on the way kelp – predominantly mayweed (Laminaria hyperborea) – structures marine environments as a habitat, a food subsidy and a buffer from environmental stressors such as large waves.

We investigate seasonal change in biodiversity within kelp forests and other coastal habitats to determine how important kelp is for coastal species, including fisheries such as lobster or cod.

This research involves a lot of scuba diving, returning to four kelp forest sites in Galway and Clare every season (even winter) and collecting basic data on species abundance and kelp biomass.

Much of ecology is a numbers game, by which I mean you sit and count the number of species you see per unit area. It can be quite tedious, but being in the water has allowed my fellow divers and students to observe species interact and formulate new questions about the importance of kelp throughout its life cycle – for instance, in drift communities that we see on the beach and seafloor.

The research programme has been really exciting to develop and we hope to continue it through different funding opportunities.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I think that kelp forests are a bit hard for some folk to imagine. Recently, a friend’s mother had me repeat the phrase ‘kelp forest’ multiple times because she had never heard the two words put together.

Kelp forests can be found on every continent except Antarctica (where they are replaced by a different type of seaweed) and we are just beginning to grasp how important they are for this part of the north Atlantic Ocean.

These communities will be hard to replace, and the work we do provides a big picture of community dynamics and productivity.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

There are multiple ways the research we do can be used in fisheries implementation and management as well as marine spatial planning.

There is currently a lot of stakeholder interest in – and against – ‘wild harvest’ of mayweed in Co Cork.

I believe a lot of the data we have collected can inform harvesting practices to ensure there are no trickle-down effects to the broader marine community, including other fisheries, and the harvesting has no impact on the resilience of the mayweed populations themselves.

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

As a subtidal scientist in Ireland, the biggest challenge is the weather!

But, as the world in general has lost trust in science, I find that it is harder to find support and funding for research that revolves around natural history. Natural history has been described as a lost art, which is shocking because we rely on observation to better inform applied sciences.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

The study of seaweed is a difficult area to communicate to the general public. Luckily, Ireland’s long and dynamic relationship with the ocean and seaweed harvesting means that most people are familiar with the common species.

It has been a treat to work here and find people have an inherent interest in the work I do. But still, a lot of people think I’m fishing when I go out to do my surveys, so I spend a lot of time reiterating that I’m not taking the local harvest, just observing it!

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

I think we have a long way to go before we really understand the Irish kelp forest communities.

My student, Aisha O’Connor, will be looking into the population genetics of mayweed along Ireland’s coast this summer. This should help us understand which regions are most diverse and capable of adaptation or recovery from major stressors such as harvesting and climate change. We think this is a really important area to focus on and translate to the broader phycology community in Europe.

I would also like to move from big-picture projects to smaller-scale investigations of chemical interactions between species and their environment in kelp forests.