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Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Pelagic fish and shark survivability in recreational fisheries - Biological Sciences PhD Studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 4021

About the award


Lead Supervisor: Dr Matthew Witt, University of Exeter, Biosciences

Co-Supervisor: Dr Lucy Hawkes, University of Exeter, Biosciences

Co-Supervisor: Dr Michael Bedington, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Co-Supervisor: Dr David Righton, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter - Exeter, Devon.

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology,  the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,285 p.a. for 2020-21) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
  • Up to £750 for travel and accomodation for compulsory cohort events.

Project background

In the UK, recreational fishing effort expended by an estimated 884,000 fishers in England [in 2012] represented more than 4 million fishing days, and £831 million direct spend. A portion of this effort is directed towards the catch-and-release recreational fishing industry. For some large pelagic fish and shark species, prohibitions on commercial landing exist due to precipitous declines (e.g. porbeagle). By comparison, recreational catch-and-release fisheries are largely unregulated (although stakeholder groups can enact rules of engagement upon their membership), and the ecological consequences of these activities for ecosystems are poorly understood. Knowledge on the post-release behaviour and survivorship of large pelagic fish caught in recreational catch-and-release fisheries will therefore be i)   valuable to enhance conservation measures through the refinement of good practice techniques for handling and releasing, and ii) aid delivery of key ecosystem services provided by these animals (by ensuring these animals have the best chance of survival). The current lack of understanding on survivability is particularly challenging as recreational catch-and-release fisheries are often promoted as a sustainable activity, yet in UK waters the effects of this practice is largely unknown. Existing literature suggests variability in fishing and handling practices along with the host environment (e.g. water temperature) can significantly influence post-release survivorship. However, to what degree each of these factors contribute to survivability and which aspects of the catch-release process have the greatest opportunity to deliver evidence-based improvements in survivorship requires scientific investigation.


Project Aims and Methods

This studentship will undertake field-based research to deliver a comprehensive assessment of post-release survivorship in recreational catch-and-release fisheries using state-of-the-art electronic survivorship tags. Data from these will be integrated with environmental data on coastal shelf seas (from drifter modelling, earth observation data, biological and physical models)to understand the factors impacting survivorship. Resulting knowledge will be used to work with stakeholders to embed scientific learning into refined handling and management practices.


Blue shark being measured


Electronic survivorship tags prepared for deployment


Candidate requirements

The candidate will be required to undertake scientific procedures according to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. The candidate will be required to demonstrate experience of undertaking scientific work at sea and have demonstrable expertise of working with non-scientific stakeholder and advocacy groups. The candidate must have demonstrable experience of using R and GIS to an advanced level and Python to a basic level. It is preferred that candidates have experience of working with animals in the wild. The candidate will need to hold a full UK-approved driving licence.



The student will be trained, where necessary, to hold a Personal Licence under A(SP)A Act 1986. Health and safety training will be provided to meet relevant components of STCW (100) and ENG1 (Seafarers medical).


Background reading and references

Brownscombe, J. W., et al. 2017. Best practices for catch-and-release recreational fisheries –angling tools and tactics. Fisheries Research, 186: 693–705. Elsevier B.V., S. J., and Suski, C. D. 2005. Do we need species-specific guidelines for catch-and-release recreational angling to effectively conserve diverse fishery resources? Biodiversity and Conservation, 14(5): 1195–1209.


Prospective applicants

For information about the application process please contact the Admissions team via   Each research studentship project advertisement has an ‘Apply Now’ button linking to an application portal.  Please note that applications received via other routes including a standard programme application route will not be considered for the studentship funding.


How to Apply

The application deadline is Friday 8 January 2021 at 2359 GMT. Interviews will take place from 8th to 19th February 2021. For more information about the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership please visit


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.  For further details please see the NERC GW4+ website.

Those not meeting the nationality and residency requirements to be treated as a ‘home’ student may apply for a limited number of full studentships for international students. Although international students are usually charged a higher tuition fee rate than ‘home’ students, those international students offered a NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership full studentship starting in 2021 will only be charged the ‘home’ tuition fee rate (which will be covered by the studentship). International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. More information on this is available from the universities you are applying to (contact details are provided in the project description that you are interested in

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.


Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project


How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English.

Reference information
You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process, however we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the, 7 days prior to the interview dates.  Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is Friday 8 January 2021 2359 GMT .  Interviews will be held between 8th and 19th February 2021.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the lead supervisor.

Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:8th January 2021
Value:£15,285 per annum for 2020-21
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries