The Role of the Biologist in Marine Science and Technology

Biology is a broad subject with many specialist areas, some of which can be applied to the ways we use and exploit the oceans. There is growing awareness of the urgent need to manage and, where appropriate, protect the coastal and open ocean environments. It has come as something of a shock to realise that even though the oceans are so vast, their life forms are still vulnerable to the effects of human activity, even where no damage was intended or envisioned – a well known example being the discovery that the eggs of penguins were damaged by residues from pesticides that had been released thousands of kilometres away.

If we are to make rational use of the living resources available in the sea, we need a good biological and ecological understanding of their populations and communities. In theory the need to regulate fishing to obtain the maximum sustainable yield is well understood, but in practise it is difficult to interpret the available data about fish stocks and translate them into actual fishing quotas. In any case, fishermen may still end up catching too many fish, or the wrong species, and throwing their lifeless bodies overboard to avoid been fined for over–fishing. Conditions in the sea are extremely variable, and the way that species interact is poorly understood. We still need to know more about migration patterns, breeding behaviour and so on. Marine biologists are carrying out research on these topics, sometimes with the aim of constructing computer models of the marine ecosystem.

Over–fishing is a worldwide problem, so fisheries management is essential. In many countries, the harvesting of fish is an important industry as well as a source of nutrition for people, particularly in some third world countries and in Asia. There can be serious economic and social effects when a fish stock is exhausted, on top of the damage to the associated ecosystem. In European waters fish stocks are monitored by biologists working for fisheries institutes in each country. They collaborate through the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) to carry out surveys of stocks at larval, immature and mature stages. Acoustic methods are developing rapidly to monitor open ocean fish such as herring and mackerel.

Some living resources are suitable for farming or ranching; examples include salmon and shellfish. For these activities success requires a comprehensive knowledge of the species’ biology. Ecologists, geneticists, pathologists and biochemists work together to make sure that stock is farmed responsibly and with minimal impact on the surrounding natural environment. New species may be farmed in the future, and much work remains to be done to see which are suitable. Increasingly, we will see the results of genetic research being applied to marine biology. This may in genetic modification of farmed species, or in basic research about the way that marine species have evolved and spread around the world.

Geneticists and biochemists are essential members of the teams that look at the environmental impact of new developments at sea, such as offshore oil platforms, or deep sea disposal of hazardous wastes. Environmental impact assessment has become a major role for marine science, especially for coastal zone developments where sea defences, tidal barrages, industry and tourism can have far reaching effects. Offshore gravel extraction can have a major impact on fish stocks since spawning grounds can be inadvertently destroyed, and changes in the shape of the seabed following dredging can affect nearby beaches and wetlands.

Pollution can harm marine life and mankind, so the study of contaminants in the environment (ecotoxicology) has become very important. The people carrying out this work may be biologists, chemists or biochemists, who will need to advise on the levels of contaminants that are acceptable in the sea. They also may be involved in conducting research into developing environmentally friendly alternatives. An example is the need to develop anti–corrosion and anti–fouling protection for ships and offshore structures that doesn’t cause environmentally harm.

These are just some of the tasks faced by marine biologists. Underlying them all is a need to improve our fundamental understanding of the organisms and their interactions. The oceans contain a far greater range of animals than the land, and the dominant marine plants are different from terrestrial ones. In recent years the discovery of chemosynthetic life forms at hydrothermal vents in the mid–ocean ridges has astonished the research community. The existence of these creatures that don’t rely on the sun at all to survive may indicate the possibilities, for instance, of life beneath the ice caps of Jupiter’s moon Europa!

So a career in marine biology can be exciting and varied, and take you to research stations located around the world, often in very beautiful places. You will need a good biology degree, or chemistry, biochemistry or specialist DNA/genetics related qualifications to secure a career. Numeracy is essential in many areas of biological work, as is chemistry. You may want to consider biology, chemistry and maths as a sound A–level basis for your later studies. There are many degree courses in biological sciences to choose from, with a variety of options. It is possible, but not necessary, to study marine biology. Take advice from working biologists, careers advisers and university staff when you choose your degree course.

For further information contact:

The Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (CEFAS)
Pakefield Road
Suffolk NR33 0HT
t 01502 524590
f 01502 513865
Challenger Society for Marine Science
National Oceanography Centre, Southampton
Room 346/10
Waterfront Campus
European Way
Southampton SO14 3ZH
w www.challenger–
The Scottish Association for Marine Science
PO Box 3
Argyll PA34 4AD
t 01631 559000
f 01631 559001
w www.nerc–
The Marine Biological Association
The Laboratory
Citadel Hill
Devon PL1 2PB
t 01752–633331
f 01752 633102
Manager Professional Affairs
The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology
1 Birdcage Walk, Westminster, London SW1H 9JJ
t 020 7382 2600