Fish nurseries in a changing world: towards functional indicators of habitat quality


Fish nurseries in a changing world: towards functional indicators of habitat quality


Project Description


Dr. Benjamin Ciotti (University of Plymouth, School of Biological and Marine Sciences) – Contact me

Dr. Anna Sturrock, University of Essex, School of Life Sciences

Dr. Emma Sheehan, University of Plymouth, School of Biological and Marine Sciences

Dr. James Stewart, Devon and Severn Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA)


Project background

The identification and conservation of “Essential Fish Habitat” is emerging as a research, management and policy priority. Protecting habitats required for every life-stage is necessary to create sustainable fisheries and conserve threatened species, but knowledge of fish habitat needs is very limited, particularly for juveniles. Juveniles are often critically dependent on shallow, inshore areas which are heavily impacted by human activities. Little is known about these young stages because they are rarely targeted by commercial fisheries or fisheries-independent surveys.

Currently, juvenile habitat quality is typically assessed simply on the basis of the abundance of fish they contain. Functional indicators such as fish growth, survival and movement into the adult population are often overlooked, but are essential to quantifying the importance of different areas as fish nurseries.


This PhD project involves 1) laboratory experiments to develop novel molecular and geochemical indices of feeding, growth and movement in free-ranging juvenile fish; and 2) extensive field work in the Severn Estuary to apply these tools in a real-life setting and identify key habitat needs of a commercially valuable species, the common sole Solea solea.


The student will be trained in a range of skills, building on core expertise of the supervisors in molecular growth indices, DNA metabarcoding for diet characterisation, and biogeochemical tracers for trophic and connectivity reconstruction: key techniques relevant not just for fisheries, but broadly across environmental research disciplines. The consultancy ‘Ocean Ecology’ (CASE partner) and the Devon and Severn Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (collaborative partner) offer a unique platform for sampling challenging estuarine environments and experience in applying innovative research to support marine policy and management decisions.

The PhD is therefore an unrivalled opportunity to develop and apply expertise in a suite of valuable research tools to support effective fisheries and ecosystem management.

Person specification

Individuals with interests in fisheries and conservation ecology, an aptitude for combining field and laboratory work and a degree in biological, environmental, marine or related science are encouraged to apply.


  • Beck MW, Heck KL, Able KW, Childers DL, Eggleston DB, Gillanders BM, Halpern B, Hays CG, Hoshino K, Minello TJ, Orth RJ, Sheridan PF, Weinstein MP (2001) The identification, conservation, and management of estuarine and marine nurseries for fish and invertebrates. Bioscience 51: 633-641
  • Morris MT, Hauton C, Baylay AJ, Peruzza L, Targett TE, Ciotti BJ (2021) Spatial variation in the gastrointestinal microbiome, diet, and nutritional condition of a juvenile flatfish among coastal habitats. Mar Env Res 170: e105413
  • Ciotti BJ, Targett TE, Nash RDM, Burrows MT (2013) Small-scale spatial and temporal heterogeneity in growth and condition of juvenile fish on sandy beaches. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 448:346-359
  • Reis-Santos, P, Gillanders, BM, Sturrock, AM et al. (2022) Reading the biomineralized book of life: expanding otolith biogeochemical research and applications for fisheries and ecosystem-based management. Rev Fish Biol Fisheries.
  • Griffin RA, Jones RE, Lough NEL, Lindenbaum CP, Alvarez MC, Clark KAJ, Griffiths JD, Calbburn PAT (2019) Effectiveness of acoustic cameras as tools for assessing biogenic structures formed by Sabellaria in highly turbid environments. Aquatic Conserv Mar Freshw Ecosyst 30: 1121-1136

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2023. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 11th January 2023.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£17,668 p.a. for 2022/23) and research funding. International applicants are eligible for fully-funded ARIES studentships including fees. Please note however that ARIES funding does not cover additional costs associated with relocation to, and living in, the UK.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences, on top of all Research Costs associated with the project. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience, and our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship follow the instructions at the bottom of the page or click the 'apply now' link.
  • ARIES is required by our funders to collect Equality and Diversity Information from all of our applicants. The information you provide will be used solely for monitoring and statistical purposes; it will remain confidential, and will be stored on the UEA sharepoint server. Data will not be shared with those involved in making decisions on the award of Studentships, and will have no influence on the success of your application. It will only be shared outside of this group in an anonymised and aggregated form. You will be ask to complete the form by the University to which you apply.

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