New Deputy Director appointed for SAERI

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The Peterborough based Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), based in the Falkland Islands, have agreed to the appointment of Tara Pelembe into the new role of SAERI Deputy Director. Tara Pelembe is currently employed by JNCC and is to be seconded into the SAERI role for a period of up to two years. The secondment will build on existing working links established between the two organisations, and will allow close collaboration in the study of the natural environment of the UK’s South Atlantic Territories, the sharing of technical expertise and the promotion of effective nature conservation in the region.

Marcus Yeo, JNCC Chief Executive,  comments ‘ This secondment represents a first class example of collaboration between JNCC and a key partner to pursue joint research objectives, and is particularly important at a time when we all need to ensure the effective and cost efficient use of our resources to support, in this case, the UK’s Overseas Territories.’

Paul Brickle, SAERI Director said ‘I am absolutely delighted with this appointment  - it will enable SAERI and the JNCC to fulfil shared missions in the UK OTs and indeed help build capacity for Environmental Science’.

Member of the Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly, Michael Poole,  commented ‘The agreement of an MoU between SAERI and the JNCC is a very positive step and will see them develop an even closer working relationship. This will only be reinforced by the secondment of Mrs Pelembe to the Islands as Deputy Director of SAERI. Building such partnerships and drawing in such expertise was a role envisaged for the Institute and this is another step along that road.’

The SAERI is an academic organisation conducting research in the South Atlantic from the tropics down to the ice in Antarctica. SAERI's remit includes the natural and physical sciences. It aims to conduct world class research, teach students, and build capacity within and between the South Atlantic Overseas Territories (

JNCC is the public body that advises the UK Government and devolved administrations on UK-wide and international nature conservation. Originally established under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, JNCC was reconstituted by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006 (

New study shows discarded plastic carrier bags can smother benthic marine life

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Dr David Blockley of SAERI has been collaborating with scientists in Ireland and the UK on new research that shows that plastic litter can smother marine life, dramatically reducing the numbers of organisms – and compromising the ecosystem services they provide – in coastal marshes.

That is the key message to emerge from this collaborative study led by Dr Dannielle Green, a Research Fellow in the Biogeochemistry Research Group at Trinity College Dublin. Dr Green is the lead author on a paper just published in Environmental Science and Technology, which describes the worrying ecological effects of discarded plastic carrier bags.

The experiment showed that in just nine weeks plastic bags smothered the surface of coastal sediment, preventing oxygen and nutrient flow, and blocking light, This caused a substantial reduction in the amount of ‘microalgae’ beneath the bags. These tiny algae form the base of the food webs in these habitats, which means their proliferation is important for animals higher up the food chain, including worms and bivalves, which, in turn, are food for commercially important fish which feed within the marsh when the tide is in.

Because some of the animals affected during this study are known to be hardy and resilient to other types of pollution, other, more sensitive groups of animals like those living in coral reefs could be more strongly affected from smothering by plastic waste.

Dr Green said: “The same effects were there regardless of whether the plastic in question was biodegradable or not. While biodegradable plastics are produced because they are thought to be better for the environment because their persistence is shorter, our study suggests that the rate at which they break down may not be fast enough to have any meaningful advantage over conventional bags in marine habitats.”

Professor Richard Thompson, Plymouth University, is co-author on the paper and has been working on the effects of marine litter for over 20 years. He said: “It is widely recognised that plastic litter can be harmful to individual organisms; but a key new finding of our current paper is that even within a matter of weeks this litter can affect communities of organisms and the services and food they provide to others.”

He added: “Plastics bring many societal benefits, but it is also clear that accumulation of end-of-life plastics represents a waste management problem. Experimental evidence on the effects of plastic debris – in this case single-use plastic bags – in the natural environment is very important to help inform appropriate legislation.”

Globally the production of plastic has increased from 1.5 million tonnes in the 1950s to around 300 million tonnes in 2013. Of this, single-use packaging items account for almost 40% and a not-insignificant portion could end up in the marine environment as litter, transported via wastewater flows, inland waterways, wind or tides. Worryingly, plastic litter currently accounts for up to 80% of all litter found in marine habitats.

Dr Green added: “Even if plastics degrade and seem to ‘disappear’, they persist as micro-plastics and could cause harm to marine organisms that ingest them.”

“The potential for rapid effects coupled with the persistence of plastic debris, including plastics described as 'biodegradable', emphasises the need to focus on reducing and re-using plastic and subsequently recycling, rather than designing materials with enhanced degradation. These could lead to inappropriate disposal and further accumulation in marine environments as well as compromising recycling streams.”

According to Dr David Blockley “Even though this research was carried out in the Northern Hemisphere, far from the South Atlantic Territories, it does have implications for us. Single use plastic packaging is a fact of life for the territories where so much is shipped in and contained in plastic and where we do not have the facilities to recycle it. More worrying is the potential for long range transport of plastic across the oceans to our shores, something we have no control of.”

This research has directly led to a new proposed research programme involving collaboration between SAERI and Trinity College Dublin. Dr Green is planning to visit Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands later this year to work with Dr Blockley looking at macro- and microplastics distribution in the waters around the islands. This research will not only give valuable information on potential ecological risks to these sensitive marine habitats, but will also provide an insight to potential long range transport of discarded plastic to remote island habitats.

For more information

The Falkland Islands Science Symposium

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During January this year, the SAERI hosted a group of Pan-American scientists for the first Falkland Islands Science Symposium. Delegates came from Universities throughout the Americas, including from the US, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. During a week of workshops and field trips, we showcased the fantastic opportunities for environmental research not only within the Falkland Islands, but the wider region encompassing the South Atlantic Overseas Territories. Presentations from local scientists provided a great background to the scientific work being conducted in the region and reciprocal presentations from our visiting international scientists provided us with an insight of what could be done given further facilities, resources and collaboration. One of the greatest achievements was that all of the delegates, local and overseas, made strong connections, friendships and potential research partners.

The proceedings of the Symposium, detailing the work that was presented, the discussions had and some of the exciting opportunities have now been completed and are available for download here.

The ICEFISH 2004 Cruise: Biological Sampling of Sub-Antarctic Marine Habitats from Punta Arenas to Cape Town

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In the continuing series of talks presented by SAERI, Professor Bill Detrich, a visiting scientist to the Falkland Islands from the Marine Science Centre at Northeastern University, Boston, USA, is presenting his research as part of the ICEFISH Cruise.

Bill is the chief scientist of the IceFish cruise. In 2004, he organised and led the IceFIsh cruise that took 30 scientists from Cape Town to Punta Arenas via Tristan Da Cunha, South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia and the Falklands. The studies included fisheries science, biodiversity surveys, biotechnology, genetic sampling etc. An upcoming new cruise is also on the horizon. Bill has been working for over 25 years in the US Antarctic research program, on the ice and on ships around the Southern Ocean. He has written several books about his work, published many scientific papers and supervised students.

The talk is taking place at Bittersweet Cafe on Wednesday 11th March at 5pm