Cullen Fellowship research on contaminants in seabird eggs
Andrew Power is a PhD student at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and a Cullen Fellow at the Marine Institute.
His research topic is on seabird eggs as a higher trophic level indicator of contaminants in Irish marine waters. Andrew's academic supervisor at GMIT is Dr Ian O'Connor and his supervisors at the Marine Institute are Dr Evin McGovern and Dr Brendan McHugh. The research project is also a collaboration with BirdWatch Ireland.
"Contaminants such as pesticides and mercury can have lethal and sub-lethal effects on both wildlife and people," explains Andrew. "Many of these contaminants bio-accumulate and bio-magnify in animals so predators like seabirds, whales and dolphins can have higher levels of contaminants than other organisms lower down the food chain.
"Seabirds accumulate contaminants over their lifetime but some species will use locally derived nutrients to form an egg – the contaminants from these nutrients are passed into that egg. Testing seabird eggs allows us to see the level of contaminants in a top predator from the local environment at the time the egg was formed."
Andrew is testing for the presence of a range of contaminants in eggs from three seabird species – gannet, guillemot and common tern, from both the east and west coast of Ireland. This will give baseline data on the levels of contaminants in seabird eggs in Irish marine waters that can also be compared to other countries (all three species breed across the northern hemisphere).
The sampling of eggs is done under licence from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and great care is taken when collecting samples to minimise disturbance to breeding colonies.
"This research may help inform future plans to reduce the levels of certain contaminants present in the environment and act as a warning system on the build-up of new and emerging contaminants," says Andrew, whose research is related to the Marine Environment and Food Safety Services (Marine Chemistry) section of the Marine Institute.
"The ultimate goal of my research is to determine if it is feasible to establish a long-term monitoring scheme for contaminants in the Irish marine environment using seabird eggs."
Andrew notes that very little research has been done on the levels of contaminants in high-trophic level organisms in Ireland.
"The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) is a major piece of EU legislation that requires members states to achieve good environmental status (GES). Conducting research on contaminants may help Ireland achieve this by identifying threats, establishing clear reference levels and targets based on scientific research which will benefit the marine environment."
He says having access to expertise and equipment during his Cullen Fellowship has allowed him to develop as a scientist and conduct state of the art research on contaminants on the marine environment.
"The most memorable experience of my time during the Cullen Fellowship has been the opportunity to conduct fieldwork and work with seabirds in some of the most remote and beautiful places in Ireland, from lighthouses on off-shore islands to enormous cliff faces on the west coast," he says.
"The seabird colonies of Ireland represent some of the last surviving true wildernesses in the country. The most challenging aspect of the Cullen Fellowship has been developing my skills in the lab to analyse contaminants. Learning from the vastly experienced analysts in GMIT and the Marine Institute has made this an exciting challenge."
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 24 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/16/01) 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.