How to start your own conservation group | Advice from marine biology student Meg Hayward-Smith
Meg Hayward-Smith is a recent graduate and the founder of Falmouth Marine Conservation (FMC), a local conservation group based in Falmouth, Cornwall, who’s mission it is to raise marine awareness to empower the community to protect the local marine environment. Here she talks about what FMC does, what inspired her to start FMC and her experiences so far.
What is your role within FMC?
My role as founder is to oversee the projects that we run, through working closely with the project coordinators, and chairing committee meetings. I help to provide guidance in making decisions and plans and discussing ideas to make sure we are achieving our goals of education outreach, collaborating with businesses, running events and campaigns and citizen science and research.
What projects do you run?
Recently we’ve had to re-think projects in order to try and get them running steadily again after lockdown, whilst still following social distancing guidelines. We have four main projects at the moment.
For our Pacific oyster project we work with Natural England and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust helping to monitor the population of this invasive species by looking at their number, distribution and location through conducting quadrat or walkover surveys, as well as population control.
We work with Cornwall Wildlife Trust on our Falmouth Seaquest project which is a citizen science marine recording project. We’ve seen dolphins, porpoises, seals and earlier this year there was even a leatherback turtle! Last year we also had a humpback whale.
Our Shoresearch project is similar to Seaquest but instead focusses on exploring the shore and recording the marine life found in rockpools.
Our biggest challenge is how to continue our outreach activities. We also have to make sure we aren’t impacting the school-work children are trying to catch up on, whilst still sharing our message about the importance conserving the marine environment. We want to run Saturday clubs and work with other groups that already engage kids such as Scouts and Guides.
What inspired you to start the group?
I started FMC back in 2016 whilst I was studying marine biology at Falmouth Marine School. I was struggling to find a local marine conservation group to volunteer with so I thought “what’s stopping me from starting a marine group in my own area?”, because surely other people want to find a place to volunteer.
I got some branding together and thought of principle goals: engaging and educating younger people about the marine environment, working with businesses to decrease any negative impacts on the marine environment, engaging the public with events and campaigns and conducting citizen science projects by collecting useful data for a research side.
I created social media accounts and wrote a press release in the Falmouth packet. Around this time, Cornwall Wildlife Trust were setting up Your Shore Beach Rangers projects around Cornwall and they had identified five areas that they felt were missing marine groups within this Your Shore Network, one of which was Falmouth. And luckily I had filled that gap! They gave us funding which we used to book out Falmouth water sports centre, buy a load of pasties and have the FMC inaugural meeting. About 80 people turned up which really showed us that there was a need for a new marine group here. I gave a presentation and talked about my vision for the group and we also got ideas from attendees about what FMC could provide.
Have you always been interested in the marine environment?
Yes, I’ve always been near the sea and I do a lot of sailing so I’m often enjoying the marine environment. I’m also lucky that my parents are involved in conservation and encourage me to be – my dad is a wildlife film-maker so from a young age I’ve always been out in nature. We used to go up to the Hebrides a lot and I loved snorkelling and exploring the rocky shores. And when I heard the terminology “marine biologist” I thought “yes, that’s something I want to do”.
What is your career highlight?
Founding FMC is a great achievement and it has been really beneficial in helping me to gain a network and have people reach out asking if I want to be involved with other projects. My highlight is probably talking at the Wildlife Trust’s chair-con about how to inspire young people into conservation. Also seeing our volunteers grow and the positive impact volunteering with FMC has had on their careers is another highlight: a lot of our outreach team are now applying to teaching roles which they might not have thought about otherwise.
What key steps have you taken in your career?
I’ve done a lot of volunteering. When I moved to Cornwall I wanted to get involved in as many different projects as possible and contacted Cornwall Wildlife Trust. I trained to become Seaquest, Shoresearch and Marine Strandings volunteers, which lead me to become one of the Marine Strandings hotline coordinators.
Then I founded FMC and started my Marine Biology degree at the University of Exeter. Whilst studying I continued volunteering with organisations like Natural England looking at Pacific Oyster data and conducting shellfish surveys with Cornwall Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority. I also gained marine qualifications such as marine mammal medic as part of British Divers Marine Life Rescue. Most recently, I’ve accepted a position at Natural England as an Adviser and am looking forward to what comes next!
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t be afraid to reach out to organisations – just because they don’t advertise internships or volunteering opportunities, doesn’t mean they might not be able to provide it. Try to get experience with as many different organisations as possible in order to get a foot in the door. And remember “experience” doesn’t necessarily mean a paid job – volunteering and being really passionate is just as valuable. Researching the organisation you want to work for and their application process is useful too as you can find the skills you need for that particular job and can then focus your efforts on building those skills for the future.
And if you can’t find a group you want to volunteer with in your area, then create it, cultivate that community and the rest will follow. This could allow you to get vital skills in the area you want to work in and allow you to grow your network.
FMC are always looking for volunteers so to find out more and how you could help, go to www.falmouthmarineconservation.co.uk or follow them on Facebook, Instagram @falmouthmarineconservation and Twitter @FMConservation.
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