Sunfish, Sea and a PhD: Why pursue further academic study in Marine Conservation?

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about studying a PhD in science? Perhaps academics poring through old volumes in a dusty university library? Or white-clad scientists spending hours on end in the clinical conditions of a lab?

This is definitely not always the case for Queen’s University, Belfast PhD student Natasha Phillips (pictured). While she spends her fair share of time researching literature for her thesis, she also conducts many of her vital field studies in sunny Camogli, Italy, working alongside local fishermen and Marine Protected Area authorities to research the diet, energy use and behaviour of the Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola), a marine organism rarely represented in academic papers. I first heard Natasha speak at Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s annual SeaQuest Southwest conference in 2015, and her enthusiasm for her topic of study was infectious. 

Have you always been interested in marine conservation? Was there a pivotal ‘light bulb’ moment for you, or has it always been a lifelong passion?

I have always loved the sea, there’s just something fascinating about such an energetic, restless environment that can host and yet conceal such an incredible diversity of life. My passion for marine conservation really stems from long summer holidays in Cornwall down by the beach, to protect and maintain the incredible species and ecosystems that the marine environment has to offer.

Ocean sunfish are rarely represented in scientific literature, and the majority of the general public may have only seen them in viral videos online, if at all! What drew you to choose them as the subject of your thesis?

I have to admit that I first saw an ocean sunfish through online videos too; it was over a year after gaining funding for the project that I first saw one in the wild! I was first drawn to ocean sunfish as a model species for my studies by its bizarre appearance and intriguing ecology. The ocean sunfish is the world’s largest bony fish with the heaviest specimen recorded measuring 2.7 m in length and weighing 2.3 tonnes!

Due to its habitat of basking at the sea surface, there was a long held theory that this species was a rare, inactive drifter of little ecological importance, but recent studies have shown this idea is far from accurate. The species has been evaluated by the IUCN as Vulnerable globally, but data deficient in Europe, and may be at risk from unsustainable fishing pressures. I hope to provide a small contribution to help define the ecological role of the sunfish and by doing so understand the potential consequences of removing such large numbers of fish from the oceans.

Ocean sunfish fishery, Japan (credit Kotaro Sagara); Accidental sunfish bycatch, Italy (credit Lukas Kubicek).

Ocean sunfish fishery, Japan (credit Kotaro Sagara); Accidental sunfish bycatch, Italy (credit Lukas Kubicek). 

In layperson’s terms, what do you aim to achieve with your research?

Put simply, my project aims to assess the diet and energy-use of ocean sunfish as they age. Although ocean sunfish are often described as dependent on jellyfish prey, a recent study provided evidence of juveniles feeding on mixed prey including mussels, crustaceans and fish, for 40% of their diet. This project aims to clarify and quantify sunfish diet, and in doing so provide a full assessment of the ecology of a large predatory fish that may play a complex role in ecosystem functioning.

You seem to have hit the jackpot with your choice of location for your fieldwork! What is the general outline of your average day in the field in Camogli? 

On a typical boat day (calm seas, clear skies) I’ll be up at 7 to pack up my boxes of kit and programme the data loggers. I also need to check that the radio tag is activated so I can find the equipment once it has released from the fish (after approximately 2 hours). Then I’ll walk from my hostel through the pretty fishing village of Santa Margherita Ligure to meet the local Marine Protected Area (MPA) patrol team at the harbour for 8.30.

We use one of the MPA’s high power inflatable boats to meet the fishermen at the set nets off Camogli. The fishermen use a bucket with a glass base to look through the water into the nets, move their wooden boats into positon and pull the loose end of the net up. It looks like real backbreaking labour but they laugh and jostle each other through clouds of cigarette smoke until the nets are pulled taught and the fish can be scooped out.

If there are sunfish, these are passed to me and laid on a tarpaulin, where we can weigh the fish and then take measurements and photographs, small blood and tissue samples (for non-invasive chemical dietary analysis) and then attach my data loggers on a self-releasing soft harness that the fish wears like a belt. We then release the fish in under 8 minutes (sunfish can survive for up to 15 minutes out of water), and wait for 2 hours for the data logger belt to release and float to the surface. I can then use the VHF radio tags to locate the belt and download the data.

Fishing boats in Camogli port; Taking samples from Giorgio.

Fishing boats in Camogli port; Taking samples from Giorgio.

What is your personal highlight of your work so far?

It’s hard to choose as this work offers so many incredible opportunities, but seeing my first wild sunfish in Italy last year was a really special moment.

One of your research specimens, a sunfish you named Giorgio, caused a little trouble when his especially designed tag, complete with radio transmitter, was briefly lost at sea. How do you combat problems like these and prevent yourself from getting disheartened?

Yes, that was a little concerning! The tag took us a week to collect as the radio transmitter was damaged and we couldn’t locate it from the boat. Fortunately, it was returned to us by a local fisherman who found the tag with my reward sticker on the side.

It can be disheartening when even the best laid plans go astray, but that is part of the risk you take working with wild animals in the open ocean. In order to study these fish, I have to throw a lot of expensive equipment into the Mediterranean Sea, and there is always a risk that it will never come back. However, most risks can be assessed and minimised ahead of time.

Most fieldwork I have undertaken so far has involved a fair share of problems and it’s worth remembering to have a couple of back up plans! Worst case scenario is that you end up with no data, (and that can feel like the end of the world!) but then you just have to crack on and improve for the next opportunity. If the work was easy, it would probably already have been done so you have to learn to enjoy the process of trial and error as much as possible!

Ocean sunfish Giorgio                        Searching for the sunfish harness.

Ocean sunfish Giorgio.                                                                            Searching for the sunfish harness.

As well as conducting research in Italy, you have also spent time in Japan, where you set up a mini Sunfish Symposium. What was it like to meet with others in your field to discuss and share research and ideas?

I really enjoy collaborative research, and I owe a lot to colleagues all over the world who have taken the time to discuss my work and share ideas. PhD’s are of course meant to be challenging, but sometimes you can start to feel lost and it is only by talking with others that you realise it’s just part of the process and there is always another route.

I was really fortunate to secure funding from the DAIWA Foundation to set up a mini symposium in Japan, as some of the best sunfish researchers in the world are based in Tokyo and this gave us all a chance to meet and discuss our work. In doing so, I have not only been able to personally meet the people whose research I have been reading about for years (still a little bit star-struck!), but to gain their advice on my work and rather than compete we are now able to collaborate to further the field in joint research proposals. 

Dinner after sunfish symposium, Tokyo;                               Exploring Japan.

Dinner after sunfish symposium, Tokyo;                               Exploring Japan.

It is obvious that your travels have greatly enriched your experience working on your thesis. While your PhD is generously supported by the Fishery Society for the British Isles (FSBI), The Daiwa Foundation and Queen’s University, how would you advise fellow students in postgraduate study to go about funding research trips similar to your own? 

Every research institute will be different, but I have found a number of travel grants available through my university solely to support postgraduate research trips from conference attendance to field work.

There are also plenty of travel grants available from journal subscriptions and charitable organisations and so if you would like to include an element of travel within the scope of your research even a brief search online will bring up travel grants and scholarships in almost every sector. I’ve had a fair share of rejections, but occasionally these grants can offer the most incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunities! 

You have a WordPress blog which documents both your research and the ins and outs of your daily life as a marine biologist. How do you think that the rise of social media has impacted the academic community, and do you think that this extra online exposure has affected your studies?

Social media is a fantastic tool for connecting with people, I have found using twitter and blogging have really helped me to discover more information on my subject and to disseminate a bit of my work in return. The “7 degrees of separation” theory seems to have decreased, as I can keep up with the latest research and directly contact researchers across world at the click of a button!

I really love that people contact me through my blog and twitter accounts, mainly with questions about sunfish and PhD life, and some with offers that really help my studies. I have had sunfish sightings reported to me from around the world, offers of help to collect samples from beached sunfish and it was through my blog that the Wildlife Trust found my research and asked me to give the keynote at their Seaquest Southwest Conference!

What can further study such as a PhD benefit those looking to work in conservation? 

Well I hope that further study such as this PhD will help prepare me for future jobs by providing a degree of specialism in my subject and by offering 3.5 years dedicated to learning new skills, from fieldwork and deployment of equipment, to analysis of data and presentation of my findings. I know that the conservation sector is extremely competitive (especially with so many positions demanding higher degrees even for voluntary roles), and so I hope that a PhD will help provide the experience I need to find work in conservation. 

Collecting wax models of sunfish for hydrodynamic tests.

Collecting wax models of sunfish for hydrodynamic tests.

If you had one piece of advice for those wishing to study marine conservation further, or who are seeking employment in the sector, what would it be? 

Passion is everything. More than ability or support or funding, it’s the love of the subject that will get you through. If at all possible, find a position that you are passionate about because then the hours, weather, pay etc. doesn’t matter, and in fact coming to work doesn’t really feel like work at all.  

Natasha is a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast. As well as Ocean Sunfish, her interests include beachcombing, terrible action films and hot chocolate with little marshmallows.

You can follow her research on both her blog and on her Twitter: @sunfishresearch

If you find a stranded Ocean Sunfish where you are and wish to help with Natasha’s research, please contact her at: or send her a Tweet.

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