Organism and ecological impacts of electrofishing in Scottish shallow coastal habitats

Over the last decade, electrofishing has developed in shallow marine coastal sites around Scotland. The principal targets are two species of razor clam (Ensis siliqua and Ensis magnus). These shellfish command high prices in the Far East which has driven a fishery that has increased substantially since the mid-1990s reaching a value of around £3 million per annum and extracting 400-500 tonnes of razors per annum. Electrofishing is preferred by the fishers because it produces a cleaner and hence more valuable product compared with other harvest techniques, such as dredging. It is also claimed that electrofishing is more benign from an environmental view but there is limited scientific evidence to support this. Some research has been conducted on the short-term impacts of electrofishing on razor clams and other non-target benthic organisms. These studies suggested that impacts are limited with razor clams being observed to rebury a few minutes after the electrical field has passed. Non-target organisms such as juvenile flatfish, starfish and crabs were either temporarily stunned or apparently unaffected. On the other hand there is anecdotal evidence that electrofished razor clams do not ‘depurate’a as well as those harvested using other techniques. This suggests that electrofishing may affect the physiology of the clams in the short and possibly medium-term.

Although previously illegal under the EU Common Fisheries Policy, the Scottish Government has established a tightly controlled research-scale trial electrofishery for razor clams in a number of locations around Scotland. The impacts of the trial fisheries on the Ensis stocks are being monitored by Marine Scotland Science. However, concerns remain about potential longer-term impacts on both smaller and under-sized razor clams that are not collected, and on the wider benthic ecosystem, especially with industry pressure to open out wider areas to electrofishing.

The aim of the project will be to conduct laboratory and field-studies to address these issues.

The proposed project addresses the SUPER DTP focus on sustainable exploitation and blue growth. The longer term impacts of electrofishing on these habitats have not been investigated and are thus unknown. This aspect requires urgent investigation and assessment before the technique becomes more widespread in the commercial fisheries. The project thus clearly addresses the theme Biodiversity and ecosystem function: Ecosystem services, ecology and conservation, not only of the razor clam stocks themselves but also of their habitat and associated shallow sub-tidal communities.

The project has the potential to include a variety of laboratory and field based approaches:-

1. Aquarium based experiments comparing the growth, filtration and other physiological performance indicators of razor clams and other non-target organisms collected using electrofishing with samples which have been collected by alternate means. Organisms will be marked using suitable tags (visible elastomer for flatfish, starfish etc.), external marking of the shell for bivalves and maintained in mixed groups so that compared subjects experience the same environmental conditions.
2. Physiological performance measures may include measurements of growth, filtration clearance rates for filtration feeding organisms (razor clams and other bivalves), swimming activity rates assessed using SAMS video observation facility (flatfish and decapods), oxygen uptake rates using respirometry, muscle energy metabolites and protein profiles.
3. Field sampling within and adjacent to the Scottish experimental electrofishing areas to investigate whether there are any detectable impacts on the wider benthic communities from electrofishing activity.
4. The student will also have the opportunity to work with Marine Scotland Science’s Assessment team in terms of analysing background data on the trial fisheries. Such data include fishing intensity, catch records and information on sizes of shellfish being landed.
5. Marine Scotland Science are also collecting shells from the experimental fisheries and are interested in the student applying methods of age determination to establish age-length relationships, and growth characteristics for razor clams in the different fishing areas. These data could be used in stock production models and potentially age-based stock assessment methods.

a Depuration (purification) is a process by which shellfish are held in tanks of clean seawater under conditions that maximize the natural filtering activity. This results in purging of intestinal contents including microbial contaminants such as E. coli thus reducing chances of contamination of the shellfish when eaten.

Funded by NERC Studentships awarded to the SUPER Doctoral Training Partnership. The SUPER DTP partner Universities are St Andrews University, Aberdeen University, Edinburgh Napier University, Heriot-Watt University, the University of the Highlands and Islands, Stirling University, University of Strathclyde and the University of the West of Scotland. Underpinning these research partners, providing additional training and projects are Marine Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the James Hutton Institute, among a total of 40 stakeholder organisations including industry and government agencies and international collaborators.

The start date of this project is: 5th October 2020

The 3½ year studentships cover:
• Tuition fees each year (for 2019/20 this is currently £4,327 for full-time study)
• A maintenance grant each of around £15,000 per annum (for full-time study)
• Funding for research training
• Part-time study is an option, with a minimum of 50% of full-time effort being required.

Applicants should normally have, or be studying for:
• A postgraduate Master’s degree from a degree-awarding body recognised by the UK government, or equivalent, or
• A first or upper second class honours degree from a degree awarding body recognised by the UK government, or equivalent, or
• Other qualifications or experience that affords sufficient evidence of an applicant’s ability to work at the academic level associated with doctoral study.

Applicants with experience of maintaining marine shellfish in aquaria and of conducting controlled experiments on marine organisms in aquaria and/or of undertaking fisheries field research are encouraged to apply.

Project specific enquiries:

General enquiries: Graduate School Office

How to Apply for this Project:

The documents you need to apply for one of our SUPER DTP studentships are as follows:

2020 SUPER DTP Applicant Guidance Notes.pdf

2020 SUPER DTP_PGR reference form.docx

2020 SUPER DTP_RD1 Studentships Application.docx

Please ensure you submit the application form – with the following supporting documentation – as one single pdf file - to

  • Copies of all official qualification certificates and transcripts. If your official certificates/transcripts are not in English, they must be accompanied by a full certified translation provided by a professional translator/translation company.
  • If English is not your native language, an English language test certificate (IELTS or equivalent), gained within the past two years;
  • If you are not a UK national, a copy of the photo page of your passport. Also include any pages which indicate a right of abode in the UK;
  • 2 academic references. If references are not available at the time of submission, they can be excluded from the single pdf file, however applicants are responsible for ensuring their referees submit the references to by the deadline.
  • If you wish to apply for more than one project, please submit separate applications.