Cullen Fellow co-creates a food web model for the Irish Sea

Jacob Bentley, a PhD student at the Scottish Association for Marine Science and Cullen Fellow at the Marine Institute12 March 2020 - Jacob Bentley is a PhD student at the Scottish Association for Marine Science and Cullen Fellow at the Marine Institute. He has been working with scientists and fishermen to develop a food web model of the Irish Sea to advise on the sustainable management of fisheries and improve our understanding of this ecosystem.

"Food webs describe who eats whom. Made of interconnected food chains, food webs help us understand how any changes in the ecosystem can affect many different species," Jacob explains.

"The Irish Sea food model includes everything from seaweed and plankton to sharks and whales, with a strong focus on commercial species such as cod, whiting, haddock and plaice."

Over the past century the commercial fish and shellfish stocks in the Irish Sea have changed dramatically. Cod, whiting and sole have been in decline and have failed to recover in the region despite a reduced fishing effort. Fishermen and scientists came together in 2015 to establish the first International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Working Group called WKIrish, to integrate ecosystem information into the assessment of commercial fish stocks.Jacob Bentley, a PhD student at the Scottish Association for Marine Science and Cullen Fellow at the Marine Institute

Jacob has been working with WKIrish to build a food web model of the Irish Sea, by using information shared by fishermen and scientists as well as traditional fisheries data. Jacob says working with fishermen is a great experience and also extremely valuable to this research.

"Having scientists and fishermen work together to create the Irish Sea model, strengthens this relationship and also builds a roadmap for future collaboration," Jacob said.

"This new food web model is a tool for exploring the past, present and future consequences of management decisions and factors such as climate change. The model will also be able to provide temporal advice for sustainable fisheries management and species conservation."

It has been a massive honour to have a role in the development of ecosystem-based advice for the Irish Sea, but it has also been incredibly challenging. We've had to develop novel research methods and overcome multiple challenges to find ways for our research to have a real-world impact," Jacob says.

Jacob said one of the biggest benefits of being part of the Cullen Fellowship Programme is the opportunity to meet and work with some incredible people at the Marine Institute. "Their research expertise and relationships with the fishing industry have been fundamental to my project. They are also supportive, providing help with research dissemination and making me aware of new opportunities for my personal development as an early career researcher."

Jacob's research supervisors are Dr Clive Fox, Dr Natalia Serpetti and Professor Sheila Heymans of The Scottish Association for Marine Science, and Professor David Reid, Marine Institute.

The Cullen Fellowship Programme builds marine research capacity and capability by equipping graduates with the skills and expertise in raising awareness about our ocean, as well as Ireland's rich marine biodiversity and ecosystems. The programme has provided grant aid to the value of €2.06 million supporting twenty-four PhD and three MSc students over the last five years. The research addresses a number of the 15 research themes identified in the National Marine Research & Innovation Strategy 2017-2021.

This project (Grant-Aid Agreement No. CF/16/08) is carried out with the support of the Marine Institute and funded under the Marine Research Programme by the Irish Government.


National Marine Research & Innovation Strategy 2017-2021: Published in 2017, the National Marine Research and Innovation Strategy 2017-2021 focuses on the broad topics identified in existing Government policies and strategies and provides a framework that recognises the complexity of research funding in the marine domain.