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Award details

Past, present and future benefits from marine biogenic shellfish reef habitats. CDT NERC SuMMeR PhD Studentship. Ref: 4463

About the award


Dr Ruth Thurstan - College of Life and Environmental Sciences, Biosciences

Project background:

Biogenic shellfish reefs are complex seafloor habitats created by the presence of species such as oysters and mussels. They promote high biodiversity and provide important benefits to humans including improved water quality, food provision and cultural services such as recreational diving and fishing. These habitats were once highly abundant around the United Kingdom but were subsequently severely depleted. Because of the multiple benefits they provide to humans and marine biodiversity, biogenic reefs are of high conservation and restoration interest. However, we lack an understanding of the scale of past loss, the benefits they once provided and what benefits they could provide in the future if they were to be restored. We also need to understand who will benefit from restoration activities and what trade-offs will have to be made to keep these habitats healthy while coastal habitats continue to be heavily used.

To fill these knowledge gaps, this PhD will investigate the past, present and future of ecosystem service provision in biogenic shellfish reefs at a site in the South West of England, the Fal Estuary. A case study approach will allow for in-depth analysis and practical application. It will also develop methodological approaches and generate lessons for wider research and management.

This PhD will work closely with stakeholders and adopt natural and social scientific approaches to understand the implications of past loss and future regeneration of these habitats, and how the benefits and trade-offs of restoration action will be distributed across society. Supervised by experts based at the University of Exeter, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Natural England, the student will develop a deep knowledge of the challenges facing marine managers while generating an interdisciplinary understanding of approaches to tackle these challenges head-on.

Recent governmental commitments in the 25 Year Environment Plan & Fisheries Act to an ecosystem approach to management, and commitment to a Net Gain approach to biodiversity, means this project has great potential to inform policy and management for biogenic reefs. The successful student will gain the ability to delve into ecological, historical and social science approaches to gain interdisciplinary research skills that they can build on in their future careers in academia, government or industry.

Aims and objectives:

This PhD will use primary and secondary data sourced from ecological and environmental repositories, historical archives, interviews and participatory approaches. It aims to answer three overarching questions:

1. How has the distribution, form and function of biogenic shellfish reef habitats changed over time and how can this knowledge be used to inform recovery targets?

2. How have the potential and realised ecosystem services, and the societal distribution of their benefits, changed over time?

3. Under a business as usual and a recovery/restoration scenario, what are the predicted trade-offs across ecosystem services, and how equitable and acceptable are these trade-offs to beneficiaries?

These results will inform discussion around the setting of ecological recovery targets, who benefits from local ecosystem services and how, and the role that historical data can play in setting recovery and restoration targets. By working directly with local stakeholders and local authorities, this project will inform policy and management goals and guide the implementation of future restoration strategies.


This project will demonstrate the value of combining social and ecological sciences to inform sustainable management of marine resources. The successful candidate will be based at the University of Exeter with significant time spent each year at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Natural England to develop their transdisciplinary skills and maximise collaborative networks.

With supervisors based at University of Exeter and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the student will have access to a wide variety of interdisciplinary training opportunities, including the development of archival interrogation techniques, ecological and beneficiary mapping skills, semi-structured and participative interview techniques, and Bayesian Belief Network analysis. Further skill development and networking opportunities at the University of Exeter will be made available through research groups such as ‘Exeter Marine’. At Plymouth Marine Laboratory, students will be exposed to several marine science disciplines in the ‘Sea and Society’ group and throughout the institute.

The student will be encouraged to attend and present at international conferences, and to produce non-academic outputs, such as policy briefs, for stakeholder dissemination. An internship at Natural England during the early stages of the PhD will provide the student with an understanding of the policy environment and policy needs over the short and longer-term.

Project Structure

This project is impact-oriented and was co-developed with Natural England (NE) as a CASE partner. Research Question 1 will be closely developed with Natural England, with fieldwork and data analysis underway in year 1. The first year will also be dedicated to the design of the research protocol for Research Questions 2&3, ready for data collection to commence in the second year. At the beginning of year 3 the student will focus on developing their understanding of Bayesian Belief Networks and the production of scenarios for presentation to relevant stakeholders.

The deep understanding and novel insights generated for this fast-moving research field are anticipated to lead to internationally-recognised research papers, of high interdisciplinary interest and with policy impact.

How to apply

Exeter University is a host institution for the Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources (CDT SuMMeR). To view the full range of opportunities available through the CDT visit the Study with CDT SuMMeR page.

If you wish to informally discuss any of our projects further, please contact the lead supervisor.

Details on how to apply and eligibility are listed on the Study with CDT SuMMeR page. If you require more information on the admissions process please contact

Applications are invited for the following three-year, eight-month PhD studentships. The studentships will start on 1 October 2022.


Application deadline:23rd May 2022
Value:Exeter University is a host institution for the Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources (CDT SuMMeR).
Duration of award:per year
Contact: CDT Admissions Team