SAMS news room

SAMS review of the year - 2023

Gliders were used in 2023 to track an unprecedented marine heatwave in June and revealed more than surface data from satellites.
Gliders were used in 2023 to track an unprecedented marine heatwave in June and revealed more than surface data from satellites.

As we bring 2023 to a close, our review of the year looks back on some of the research, education, enterprise and outreach that made an impact in the world of marine science.

Drs Matt Davey and Alex Thomson brought in 2023 from a field station in Antarctica during their winter fieldwork to capture the huge variety of ‘green’ life on the white continent.

The expedition was one of the longest and most comprehensive surveys of photosynthetic life in Antarctica in recent years.

Meanwhile, our Director, Prof Nicholas Owens began a three-year term on the Scottish Science Advisory Council (SSAC). This panel of scientific experts advises the Scottish Government by supporting the Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland and providing independent advice to inform policy development.

International impact

Invasive marine species expert Prof Elizabeth Cottier-Cook was part of a large study that for the first time predicted which invasive species could pose a future threat to the UK’s ecologically unique Overseas Territories.

The 14 Territories – many of them small, remote islands such as St Helena and Pitcairn – are home to species found nowhere else in the world. The team then predicted which species are most likely to arrive and impact these environments within the next 10 years, with Prof Cottier-Cook leading the marine working group.

In June, Prof Cottier-Cook was lead author on an international policy brief published by the United Nations University’s Institute for Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS), which warned that global wild stocks were at risk of disappearing unless urgent international protection measures are implemented.

Later in the year, Prof Cottier-Cook would be honoured with the Outstanding Contribution Award at the annual Women in Scottish Aquaculture Awards. She would also go on to secure funding for ACES-STAR, a highly rated European aquaculture Master’s Degree.

In March, SAMS recruited Prof Andrew Sweetman to lead its Seafloor Ecology and Biogeochemistry research group. With a strong research focus on the impact of anthropogenic stressors on shallow and deep-sea benthic ecosystems, Prof Sweetman has been examining the effects of deep-sea mining on the deep ocean. Part of this work showed how sediment plumes created by mining the deep sea could adversely affect deep-sea creatures.

In April, Prof Michael Burows co-authored a report in the influential journal Science, which called on governments around the world to reconsider strategies to tackle the climate crisis and on-going biodiversity loss.

An unprecedented and continuing loss of biodiversity has been sparked by human induced climate change, together with the intensive use and destruction of natural ecosystems. The study estimates that human activities have altered roughly 75 percent of the land surface and 66 percent of the marine waters on our planet. As a result, today approximately 80 percent of the biomass from mammals and 50 percent of plant biomass have been lost, while more species are in danger of extinction than at any time in human history.

Later in the year, an international team of researchers, including Prof Burrows, published a call in the journal Nature for increased monitoring of ocean temperatures in order to improve marine heatwave forecasting. Marine heatwaves are defined as at least five consecutive days when sea temperatures are in the top 10% of temperatures for that day of the year. They can have devastating effects on ocean life, particularly corals and other species that are fixed in one location. Heatwaves also have an impact on aquaculture and fishing industries, which would benefit from accurate forecasting.

Prof Burrows was named on the Reuters Hot List of the world’s most influential climate scientists in the week preceding the publication and in November was included on the Clarivate Highly Cited Researchers List.

#WhaleTalk - from pods to podcasts

World Ocean Day (8th June) was a particularly busy one, with the launch of our #WhaleTalk campaign and the announcement of a new marine biology pathway as part of our existing BSc Marine Science Hons Degree programme.

To mark World Ocean Day, SAMS scientists joined colleagues from across the world in the first ever global experiment to record the underwater sounds of animals in our ocean, lakes and rivers. The World Ocean Passive Acoustic Monitoring (WOPAM) project saw around 150 researchers from 92 research institutes in 32 countries deploy underwater recording devices to gain a better understanding of the distribution of sound levels and types of sound in those areas around the world, which occur at the same time. The recordings will also identify any manmade sounds, revealing our potential impact on the underwater environment.

The SAMS deployment was co-ordinated by SAMS marine mammals expert Dr Nienke van Geel, who deployed a hydrophone (underwater microphone) near to the SAMS seaweed farm off the isle of Lismore.

During the remainder of 2023, SAMS outreach work resulted in 2,375 people, from primary school age to adults, learning more about whales off the Scottish west coast. A newly launched SAMS Ocean Explorer podcast has published five episodes to far, three of which were part of the ongoing #WhaleTalk series.

Tech talk

Heralding a new zero-carbon era for ocean observations, a wave-propelled uncrewed surface vessel (USV) successfully recovered scientific data from a sensor moored 1,800 metres deep in the Rockall Trough. The USV, deployed by SAMS and manufactured by AutoNaut in the UK, remotely collected data from the Sonardyne Fetch AZA bottom pressure recorders (BPRs), before sending it back to oceanographers on shore via satellite. Scientists say the successful mission is a step change in how oceanographic data is collected and reduces the reliance on ships for deep sea fieldwork.

In June this year, SAMS scientists used autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) known as gliders to investigate an ‘extraordinary’ marine heatwave event in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Scotland. Satellites revealed record sea surface temperatures in the region in mid-June, but glider data gave further insight into the warming event. The glider operates in the open ocean for months at a time, collecting oceanographic measurements down to 1,000 metres and resurfacing every few hours to report back its findings. It revealed that the extreme sea temperatures were in the first 20 metres of the ocean, with relatively typical temperatures below that.

Later in 2023, the Teledyne Gavia AUV based at SAMS was the first to be deployed from the UK’s newest scientific research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough.

Political connections

On a visit to SAMS in January, then Scottish higher education minister Jamie Hepburn MSP described the institute’s ‘unique and significant role in Scotland’s higher education sector’.  

That same month the then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP announced that UHI would receive a £900,000 funding boost from the offshore wind industry to employ 10 STEM coordinators across the university partnership, including one based at SAMS.

Continuing to raise our profile with the Scottish Parliament, SAMS represented UHI at the Universities Scotland parliamentary reception on 31st January. A unique collection of algae based at SAMS brought a bit of ‘culture’ to the Parliament at the annual event showcasing the best of Scottish university research.

SAMS hosted a number of visitors in early August, from politicians to researchers and civil servants.

Among them was John Lamont MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Scotland, who was keen to follow up on the UK Government-funded Seaweed Academy, opened the previous year. Mr Lamont expressed a desire to work more closely with SAMS to help us increase our profile in Westminster.

The institute also offered a warm welcome to Prof Colin Campbell, chief executive of the James Hutton Institute, and to former SAMS scientist Dr Sally Rouse, who led a Scottish Government delegation on a visit to the lab. 

SAMS Enterprise, the commercial arm of SAMS, was invited to showcase its Seaweed Academy project in the UK Government pavilion at the year’s Royal Highland Show, alongside other organisations in receipt of UK Government funding.

Awards and celebrations

A new spin-out company from SAMS that uses marine worms to clean up waste from fish farms, won a prestigious national business competition in October.

At the Converge Awards, N-ovatio-N™ CEO Dr Georgina Robinson, a Research Associate at SAMS, received the Converge Challenge prize, the premier award presented to the company that shows the greatest growth and innovation potential.

N-ovatio-N™ offers an environmentally friendly solution to the issue of organic waste in the aquaculture industry. The scalable biotechnological approach can convert waste into high value, sustainable feed ingredients in the form of marine worms, rich in protein, lipid and omega-3 fatty acids. The technology can be co-located at aquaculture production facilities to deliver circular aquaculture. This innovative approach enables N-ovatio-N™ to grow high quality polychaete worms year-round for UK and global export markets.

In April, SAMS announced its first ever corporate supporter. Water Plus was the first company to sign up to SAMS’ brand-new corporate supporter scheme, which aims to bring companies together to focus collective in marine science research. SAMS also gained support from Mission Performance and The Co-op Foundation during 2023.

SAMS’ commitment to gender equality was recognised, as the institute was presented with an Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) Bronze Award. SAMS also signed up to the Armed Forces Covenant, a pledge that those who have served in the British Armed Forces will not be unfairly treated in their search for employment. 

Ahead of beginning their studies in September a new cohort of students had somewhere new to call home, following the renovation of an Oban town centre building. A collaboration between SAMS and local entrepreneurs, Dunollie Halls of Residence is located in the former United Free Church, at the intersection of Dunollie Road and Breadalbane Street. It currently hosts 19 students on the BSc (Hons) Marine Science Degree.

At graduation, we learned how our student of the year Anna Pfoertner battled chronic health problems to earn a first-class honours degree and joined a double celebration for couple Dr Guy Trimby and Dr Elise Depauw who collected their doctorates at graduation as newlyweds.