By Nuri Max Steinmann.
Raquel Gaião Silva is a recent MSc graduate in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Portugal and just won the 2018 Young Researchers’ Award, which is assigned by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). She was awarded for her thesis project about the impact of climate change on the distribution of marine forests using a novel methodology.
Congratulations, you won the 2018 Young Researchers’ Award for you Master thesis project. Can you tell us a bit more about your project and what made it win the award?
My project is centered on the study of distributional changes of forest-forming macroalgae that, for those who don’t know, are the structural basis of important ecosystems that provide food and shelter for a great diversity of species – many with high economic value. Studying their geographic distributional responses is therefore of great importance to assist in stakeholders’ resource management to support science and conservation action. Many forest-forming species reach their range limits in Iberia, and since there is increasing evidence that climate change is influencing these species’ distribution, my main goal was to understand past, present and future impacts of climate change in the range shifts of these species. To do so, I consulted collections from museums, herbaria, citizen science programs and, of course, online databases. Here, GBIF was very valuable contributing with almost 50% of all data for my study. So, when I heard that GBIF was opening a contest for people that were using their platform for their thesis, I applied!
I guess that what made me win the award was the innovative methodology used and the high potential to produce important scientific output with ecological, social and economic significance for many different stakeholders dependent on these bioresources.
You are now working for the BlueBio Alliance, a Portuguese non-profit association. What are they doing and what’s your job about?
Right now, BlueBio Alliance is working on two main projects. An acceleration program called Blue Bio Value, the first Portuguese accelerator that scales up marine biobased solutions that are working on some critical societal challenges such as: feeding a growing population, CO2 mitigation, scarcity of resources, plastic reduction and aging population. The other project is called Blue Demo Network that aims at having, in a single access point, a list of available infrastructures and tools focused on the blue bioeconomy in Portugal, that allow startups to test and demonstrate, in almost real conditions, the functionalities of their solutions. I have been responsible for communication, dissemination and management of these projects and I have been learning a lot, mostly from being involved in debates with themes like, for example, bioplastics, the potential of seaweed cultivation for a variety of purposes, and technologies that facilitate transparency in the products we buy.
You have a bachelor’s degree in Biology and a master’s in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. Do you remember what made you choose this path after you finished school and where does your special interests in the marine world come from?
I must say that I have always enjoyed many different subjects. The truth is that when people used to ask me “what I wanted to be when I grow up,” I could never answer for sure. At some point of my life, I became more curious about biology aspects and ended up deciding to go for a Biology course in my bachelor. When I was doing it, I knew that it was a good choice because I really didn’t mind studying for the exams at all, everything was interesting! While I was doing my bachelor, I decided to take a diving course and I absolutely loved it. So, from that moment on, it became very clear to me that what “I wanted to be when I grow up” was to be working for the Sea, by any means.
My faith lies in the next generations and that is where I think we must put our efforts
Your thesis project had a special focus on climate change and it’s impacts, which is one of many major problems the oceans face. Do you still have hope that we will manage to address these problems and that we will turn the tide around?
I believe that is very difficult to change the mentality of the “old” people. People that have faced other very important problems like political and social crises and that lived their lives focusing on short term victories. My faith lies in the next generations and that is where I think we must put our efforts. There are increasing initiatives related to ocean literacy, environmental education and awareness. People are more and more aware of the need to fight human-driven climate change and the consequences of not doing anything. I do think that my generation and the next to come are going to bring the sustainable alternatives that we need to turn the tide around.
What is the situation in Portugal like? Are there specific problems, which you think need to be addressed more than others?
Portugal, holding a long shoreline with many rivers flowing westward to the ocean, has always been very connected to the sea. By the end of the 16th century, Portuguese conquerors had set foot on each continent and sailed the seven seas. Portugal’s waters are home to hundreds of types of marine fish and we are now the largest consumer of seafood per capita of the EU and the 3rd in the world. The problem is that we are fishing huge amounts of a small variety of species, only demanding the fish of our typical Portuguese dishes and disregarding the harmful impacts of their large catches. A problem that I consider urgent to be addressed in Portugal, is therefore the under valorization of fish with high nutritional value and the overexploitation of what is considered to be high value fish.
When you think globally, what would be the three most important things we have to change?
Overconsumption. Waste management. Ocean Literacy.
It is 2050 – What is Raquel doing and what will be the state of our oceans?
By 2050 I would love to feel confident and have the capacity to implement and manage projects that are in some way related to conservation and environmental sustainability. Regarding the state of our oceans, I am confident they will have less plastic and more marine protected areas. I also truly hope that the fish stocks will be more balanced and sustainably managed. However, I worry that there is still much work to do in terms of cultural change and conservation measures.