Who I am
Growing up in the cosmopolitan suburbs of rainy London meant that I was hours away from the ocean. For a long time, it was my imagination that nurtured an interest in the marine world, helped along by well-worn books, enormous museums and beautiful documentaries. But in the long run, this would never really do. I have since made sure to connect the ocean with both my work and my home life as much as possible, whether that’s waiting for marine megafauna atop a Maldivian dhoni (dhow-like boat), snorkelling above maerl beds in the cold waters of Gairloch in western Scotland, doing a PhD on Antarctic seals, or watching waves as they crash over the cliffs at Eshaness, Shetland. Nowadays, my work focuses on the use of genetic tools for wildlife conservation and, best of all, I live just a short drive from the sea.
Where I work
Although I get the chance to work on incredible species from all around the world, most of my time is spent in a quiet office by the peaceful hills of the Pentlands, just south of the city of Edinburgh. From here I have access to bustling laboratories, powerful computer servers and academic expertise that help me deliver cutting-edge research with important applications for conservation. Occasionally though, I venture out to field sites to collect genetic samples, engage with local researchers and connect with local communities. One of these sites is in Sri Lanka, where sharks and rays are caught in fisheries every single day. Each morning, we cycle along red dusty roads, past peacocks and palm trees, to survey the daily catch at local landing sites. Critically Endangered guitarfishes and wedgefishes are a common sight, hidden in tangled gill nets at the bottom of bright blue boats. So too are long-line hooks that mean the end for many pelagic sharks, as well as bigeye and yellowfin tuna. The problem here, as in so many places across the Indian Ocean, is a lack of national management for protecting these vulnerable species, together with limited capacity for enforcing the regulations that are already in place. There are many ways to tackle these problems and one approach is encoded in DNA.
What I do
My research focuses on the use of genetic tools for filling knowledge gaps and building capacity in fishing hotspots like Sri Lanka. DNA analysis is a powerful method for confidently drawing lines around the shark and ray populations of the world. This level of understanding is crucial for delivering national management recommendations that will help protect our marine life. Genetic data can also be used to uncover the species origin of wildlife products. This is especially important for elasmobranchs, where specimens can often be difficult to identify by eye, and opens the opportunity for effective monitoring and control of fisheries and trade.
In this project funded by the Save Our Seas Foundation, we are focusing on characterising population structure and diversity of the bowmouth guitarfish, the world’s most wide-ranging and evolutionarily distinct species in the wedgefish family. This information will help to underpin the development of species-specific management actions that aim to protect this vulnerable species well into the future. Alongside this, we will improve capacity within Sri Lanka to carry out genetic-based species identification by training local marine biologists to use rapid and cost-effective DNA sequencing technology. With the knowledge and skills on the ground to effectively monitor the elasmobranch trade, Sri Lanka will be in a stronger position to minimise illegal and unsustainable fishing activities.