A Scotland Conservation Officer by Catherine Gemmel

I have always been a water baby. Any chance to go to the beach, stick my head into a rock pool or to swim in the sea I was there. As soon as I had the opportunity to learn to SCUBA dive with Aberdeen University I grabbed it so I could experience first hand the amazing underwater world. We are so lucky in this country to have such amazing experiences on our doorstep and I always knew I wanted to be able to give something back to the sea after so many years of enjoyment and wonder.


After graduating from Aberdeen University in Marine and Coastal Resource Management I started my first graduate job working down on the beautiful South Coast in Dorset as a Field Studies instructor with outdoor adventure company PGL.


I spent two fantastic seasons introducing young people to the incredible world of rock pools, rivers, fossils and coastal formations. Being able to share my passion and my enthusiasm for the environment every day to different children, young adults and families was an incredible experience and there are moments of realisation in some of their faces that I will never forget.


Scotland was calling me home though so I waved good bye to my last group of A Level Geographers to embark on my new adventure – Deep Sea World! Deep Sea World is an aquarium located underneath the beautiful Forth Rail Bridge and I managed to get a full time position as a Visitor Services Presenter there.


Using my experience and my enthusiasm from my time spend on the coast and helped bring to life a new series of informative talks and educational classes. To help bring it all together I became the Visitor Services Supervisor and helped run the front of house team to make the whole experience as educational and enjoyable as possible for both our visitors and our animals.


To help add more conservation messages to my work I signed up to become a Sea Champion Volunteer with the Marine Conservation Society. I have always loved volunteering and had been unable to do so while working in Dorset. It is a fantastic program to be involved in.


I was trained in the MCS free educational road shows and have delivered several Turtle presentations to schools around Scotland as well as helping out at several beach cleans and events. To bring my personal volunteering in line with my work effort I started going through the process of adopting a local beach through Deep Sea World so we could help protect the marine environment that was on our door step.


However it was through this process that I discovered that a company associated with Deep Sea World kept cetaceans in captivity which was something I am strongly against. Although the work we were doing in the Aquarium to raise awareness of different marine conservation issues was brilliant I knew it was time to move on.


I was very lucky to then be asked to an interview by the Marine Conservation Society for their new role of Scotland Conservation Officer. A nerve wracking presentation and long week later I was absolutely thrilled to be offered the position. It has been a fantastic whirlwind of training, events, meetings, beach cleans, classes, bio blitzes and introductions during these first three months but I would love to take some time now to tell you about what I do now and how you can help if you share the same passion, inspiration and respect for our seas as I do.


Marine Conservation Soceity

Marine Conservation Society

So what is the Marine Conservation Society? The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) is the voice for everyone who loves the sea. We work to secure a future for our living seas, and to save our threatened marine wildlife before it is lost forever.


  • Almost nowhere in UK seas is marine wildlife safe from harm. We need to establish vital marine protected areas where wildlife can recover and flourish.

  • Levels of beach litter have also doubled over the last two decades. MCS works to clear our seas of the rising tide of rubbish that is so dangerous to sea life, including seabirds, whales and dolphins.

  • Furthermore 71% of Europe’s fish stocks are overfished or depleted. Once common fish such as skate and cod are now rare in many areas. MCS works to reduce the overfishing which is devastating the life in our seas, and promotes sustainable seafood alternatives.



Our work ensures that the sea’s rich wildlife can be restored, fish stocks grow more plentiful, and our beaches and seawater become cleaner. These three key points outline the three broad areas of our work; pollution, fisheries and biodiversity. In my role I am mainly working in the pollution team as well as a few projects under biodiversity and it is this work that I would like to take the time to tell you about here. If you are interested in our other work areas please do get in touch or head to our website for lots of extra information and ways you can help.



Pollution gets into the sea from many sources but it all results in the same thing – swimming in our seas can make you ill. Raw, untreated sewage gets washed into the sea through combined sewer overflows (CSO’s) which discharge storm water, supposedly only in heavy rain. However, MCS is aware that many CSO’s spill more frequently and pollute our seas.


Raw sewage is full of bacteria and viruses. Swimming in water contaminated with sewage can cause gastroenteritis, respiratory illness and ear, nose and throat infections. Shellfish grown in sewage-contaminated waters can cause food poisoning, because shellfish concentrate toxins in their tissues. Sewage pollution is not the only problem. Nutrients from agricultural chemicals leach into our seas and cause giant blooms of algae, which remove oxygen from the water and create ‘dead zones’. Oil, radioactive waste, heavy metals and toxic chemicals all pollute the seas because of our actions, and much of it is preventable.




  • Litter is swamping our oceans and is washing up on beaches. It kills wildlife, looks disgusting, is a hazard to our health and costs millions to clear up. There are nearly 2,500 items of rubbish for every kilometre on a beach. Marine wildlife gets entangled in litter and accidentally ingests it.

  • Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and the bags block their stomachs, often leading to death from starvation. Seabirds mistake floating plastic litter for food, and over 90% of fulmars found dead around the North Sea have plastic in their stomachs.

  • Plastic litter on beaches has increased 140% since 1994. Plastic never biodegrades. It just breaks down into small pieces but does not disappear. Microplastic particles are now found inside filter feeding animals and amongst sand grains on our beaches.


Litter comes from many sources – the public, fishing activities, sewage pipes and shipping, but it is all preventable. This leads nicely onto one of my main projects – Beachwatch! I hope you find this next section interesting as I am hoping that many Ragged University Members may be inspired to join me and hundreds of other volunteers this September to help turn the tide on marine litter!



Methodology in pictures
Methodology in pictures


MCS has been collecting data on marine litter through our citizen science program Beachwatch since 1994 and has thus amassed a large bank of data detailing both type and source of litter to be found in the UK. The protocols and methodology used are compatible with other systems on a European and worldwide basis.


Through the Beachwatch project, local people/groups/companies volunteer to undertake beach cleans and litter surveys of their chosen beach. Each beach has a designated Organiser who is provided with a detailed pack via the website or through the post containing information on:

  • How to organise and carry out a beach clean, including – gaining permission to carry out a clean, how to give a safety briefing, how to fill in the forms, what and where to clean, what and what not to pick up.
  • How to carry out a Risk Assessment
  • Survey sheets
  • Litter ID sheets
  • Parental consent forms
  • MCS insurance information
  • Training workshops around the country for new and existing organisers.


Briefly we ask the organiser to:

  • Pick a representative 100m stretch of the beach and always use this section for surveying purposes.
  • For reasons of safety we advise starting the survey about an hour or 2 after high tide.
  • Using the survey sheets provided pick up and note down every item of litter in the 100m stretch. There is also space on the sheet for unusual items, dead/stranded animals etc.
  • Upload the results to the MCS Litter database.


The Data Sheets categorise litter items according to material type, e.g. plastics, metal, sanitary. Each material type is then broken down into specific objects, e.g. bottle, crisp packet, cotton bud stick. The total number of litter items in each material category, total number of bags, weight of litter, length and width of beach surveyed, weather conditions on the day and the number of volunteers are also recorded.


Marine Conservation Society Beachwatch

What is the data used for:

The data is analysed by MCS to identify the quantities, types and sources of litter affecting the UK coastline and the impacts of litter on marine life, human health and local economies, providing evidence that can be used to target specific polluters and pollutants at local, national and international levels.


Beachwatch provides data for the International Coastal Cleanup, co-ordinated by the Ocean Conservancy (formerly the Centre for Marine Conservation) in the USA, which involves over 70 countries worldwide in litter surveys and beach cleans over the same weekend in September, providing information on the global extent of marine litter.


Beachwatch data is fed into the OSPAR project on Marine Litter. Indeed, the methodology used by OSPAR is based on the MCS methodology. MCS also designed and hosts the current OSPAR marine litter database.


Beachwatch data formed the evidence for the Governments two reports Charting Progress 1 and Charting Progress 2 on the state of the UK seas Defra acknowledged that Beachwatch “provides the only long-term dataset” for beach litter in the UK. MCS were the lead author for the beach litter section in Charting Progress 2.


MCS is a member of the EU Technical working group on Marine Litter which is devising guidelines for the monitoring of marine litter to ensure consistency throughout the EU for the MSFD.


Beach watch

How can you help?

This years Great British Beach Clean is running from the 18th-21st September and we are still looking for lots of interested and enthusiastic Beachwatch Organisers and Volunteers! If you have a stretch of local beach that you would like to help clean and survey they please do get in touch or head to the website to get your own event registered! You can keep it a private event and just take part yourselves or with close friends and family.


Or if you fancy you can open it up to the general public and encourage as many volunteers to come along as possible! If there are events already going on in your area then you can sign up as a volunteer. The more events and the more volunteers we have will make a huge difference to the amount of litter and the amount of data we will be able to collect during those 4 days.


Keep an eye out on the Ragged University website for details of some collaborative events! While you wait please head to the Beachwatch website to find out more and feel free to get in touch.



The next thing I would like to tell you about is some of the work I contribute to in our biodiversity section. It really brings home why projects like Beachwatch are so important when you discover what amazing life we have living in our seas and on our shores!


Biodiversity: Protecting and saving our disappearing wildlife

Our oceans support an estimated ten million species, only three percent of which have been identified. But our rich ocean wildlife is being depleted, disappearing before we have even had the chance to learn about it. We are losing biodiversity at a rate never witnessed before, at huge cost to ourselves, and leaving a degraded environment that leaves wildlife vulnerable in the face of change.


If our oceans are to cope with what the future will throw at them, we need to act now. We need to halt the loss of biodiversity and take care of the fabric of life in our seas. We are all connected to the sea in ways we may not realize, and the health of our seas is key to a rich and productive future.


Marine Biodiversity

MCS wildlife protection in action

We are working to protect our precious seas and wildlife, and there are lots of ways for you to get involved. We are campaigning for marine protected areas in the UK, studying the amazing wildlife in our seas, and working on frontline conservation projects involving local people in the stewardship of their marine resources, both in the UK and abroad, with our coral reef projects.


The work that I am helping to promote in Scotland through my role is our Wildlife Sighting Schemes. MCS is interested in hearing about your sightings of a number of different marine species – basking sharks, marine turtles and jellyfish in UK and Irish waters.


MCS also partners Seasearch in surveying underwater wildlife with volunteer divers – click the ‘Underwater surveys’ link above for more information – and we are working with the Marine Life Information Network (MarLIN) to find out more about new resident wildlife around our shores – click the ‘Alien species’ link above to find out more.


We also partner with the Wise Scheme which delivers training and accreditation to commercial operators that provide wildlife watching trips. I recently just went on a Basking Shark Day Tour with Basking Shark Scotland to learn more about these fantastic animals. It was truly a once on a lifetime experience – it was just incredible to see these massive beautiful creatures up close in their own environment. For those of you interested in them I have included a little piece of information on them next.


Basking sharks

Basking sharks in our seas

The basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is Britain’s largest fish.  They can grow up to 11 metres long and weigh up to 7 tonnes – about the size and weight of a double-decker bus! Once numerous in our waters, basking sharks were hunted for their liver oil and their populations declined to such an extent that now they are considered to be endangered in UK waters.


Now they are protected and the fishery has stopped, but as the population recovers they still face threats of accidental entanglement, disturbance at their surface feeding sites and illegal fishing for their valuable fins.


What needs to be done?

We still have much to learn about these gentle giants, which spend most of their lives hidden beneath the waves. While we are beginning to identify basking shark hotspots where they come to the surface in summer to feed, we do not fully understand the importance of these hotspots and what exactly the sharks are doing there.


Neither do we know how many sharks are accidentally entangled in fishing gear or hit by boats and how significant these threats may be. We do not know the significance of disturbance at basking shark hotspots, and we do not know where the all-important basking shark breeding grounds are. By finding out more about these spectacular animals, we will have a better idea of how to protect them.


Over the last 25 years, MCS has successfully campaigned for better national and international legal protection for basking sharks. Our Basking Shark Watch programme has also generated the largest basking shark sightings database in the world and has been instrumental in identifying surface feeding hotspots.


Now basking sharks are fully protected, MCS will be looking to answer some of the mysteries surrounding these elegant and elusive leviathans through Basking Shark Watch, and collaborative research with our partner organisations. Help us find out how best to protect out largest fish.


What can you do?

Please tell us when you spot a basking shark! If you head to our website there is a dedicated wildlife sightings page for not just basking sharks but leatherback turtles, jellyfish and invasive species. If you are ever out at the coast and spot any of these animals it is very easy to logon to report where and when you saw them.

See you on a beach soon!


I hope you have found my small nugget of marine conservation experience an interesting read! There is so much amazing work going on that I feel extremely privileged to be able to play a small part. Hopefully I might have inspired a new generation of wildlife reporters as well as beachwatch volunteers! If you would like any more information on anything you have read about then please do not hesitate to get in touch and I hope to see you all on a beach somewhere soon!