Marine biologist Jan Verbeek about the challenges in marine conservation

Jan Verbeek is a marine biologist and scientific diver I met during the Erasmus Mundus master’s programme in marine biodiversity and conservation in Portugal. Since leaving Germany about 10 years ago, he spent the large majority of his time studying and working in the UK where he started his journey as a marine biologist. Marine conservation has, from the start, been his main focus, which he pursued as a scientific diver as well as working on conservation management projects such as the LIFE Natura 2000 Programme for Wales which developed management plans for protected habitats and species. Since our recent joint master’s degree, he became increasingly involved in marine habitat restoration initiatives. Having found his particular area of interest, Jan is currently planning to move back to Portugal to contribute to further restoration projects and soon starting his PhD under the same topic.   

Hi Jan! Currently, you are in this transition phase between having completed your masters and starting a PhD/job. It’s a time where natural science students often face quite some challenges to make the next step. Do you feel you were prepared enough for the life after your masters? What are the main issues you face?

Hey! Yes, I’m currently in one of those transition periods which people may often find challenging. But that’s what they are “transition periods”. I’ve been living in Malta for the past year and a half since I finished my masters and haven’t at all worked as a marine scientist. I covered myself by doing a job as a project manager for a new electric scooter sharing start-up. Of course, I found it a bit challenging sometimes in a sense that I was a bit frustrated not to be working in my area but I have gained so much valuable experience in other aspects that it was definitely worthwhile. I have to be honest; I don’t feel that my master’s prepared me for life after university. And how could it? There are so many different career paths and ways to live your life. What I did learn is to be patient and flexible, especially when pursuing a career in marine science. I’ve always been quite proactive to plan my next steps and have made the most of my degrees in terms of making contacts (a bit of vitamin C always helps) and gaining professional experience. I am now enjoying my last month on this little rock until I move back to Portugal for a new job and, fingers crossed, for my PhD at the end of the year.

How do you cope with demotivation? Have you ever thought about changing the field?

I think most of us have had periods after finishing our degrees when things seemed rather bleak. I’m sure most of you can relate! Jobs are unfortunately not as abundant as we would all like them to be and figuring out what it is that we are really passionate about can also be challenging. I would be lying if I’d say that I was never demotivated and questioned whether this is the path I want to follow. But the thing that kept me going was and still is my passion for marine conservation. Since I started diving at a young age, it has always been my dream and ambition to become a marine biologist, and luckily I have been quite persistent and stubborn to get where I want to be. So to answer your question, no I have never realistically considered changing fields. I can’t see myself doing anything else which I see as strength rather than a limitation. The way I cope with demotivation is to keep firmly focussed on my goal. I see everything else along the way as stepping stones and often valuable lessons which I’m sure helped me grow as a person. During periods when I had do jobs just to keep afloat, I kept myself motivated by doing some volunteer work, writing a manuscript for publication and getting in the water as often as possible.

Only if people realise the urgency of taking action now and demanding for change, we will be able to steer politics into the right direction.

The topics climate crisis and plastic pollution have become popular in the public and media. Do you have hope that this trend will have a positive effect on academia, such as an increase in funding? Do you think that research can still contribute to the solution or do we need faster and more practical solutions?

I believe that the growing awareness of these issues will have a positive knock on effect on academia. But please don’t reference me on this. I’m not basing this on any official figures.

What I would expect to see is a similar pattern as we observe for our open markets. If there is a demand for a certain good then this demand will be met to satisfy the consumers. And of course to make a ton of money! If there is a growing need for information on a certain topic, then research grants should be provided to cover this need. I really hope to see this happening in order to allocate financial resources to fill critical knowledge gaps.

In order to find the best solutions to tackle the current environmental crisis, we rely on the best available evidence which is provided by research. Research, therefore, has to play a key role in understanding the complex dynamics of our ecosystems and the impact that human activities have. Only then will we be able to make appropriate and educated decisions on what is needed to minimise the human footprint on nature. This being said, research has already gathered a huge amount of information but look what is happening. Not very much in my opinion! I believe that faster, more practical solutions need to be implemented now, whilst we gather more information based on research to change or optimise the way we manage our natural resources in the future. This requires a fundamental change in politics and a stronger connection between research and top level management. How we achieve this? Well, I wish I could tell you! All I can say is that ongoing, effective awareness rising to get the general public informed is one key aspect. Only if people realise the urgency of taking action now and demanding for change, we will be able to steer politics into the right direction.  

You have worked quite a lot in habitat restoration. What did you do there and does it work?

My work and contribution to habitat restoration all started with an internship at the University of Algarve during my masters. Two lovely ladies and I went out to assess the condition of a restored seagrass meadow and its effect on the diversity of species and ecosystem services. As part of the ongoing work of the Centro de Ciencia do Mar (CCMAR), we were also invited to help with further seagrass restoration actions. After this experience I was hooked. I finally found my particular niche in marine conservation which I was determined to follow. In between academic years, I continued working with CCMAR under a fellowship grant, during which I contributed to the restoration of seagrasses and soft corals. We spent weeks transplanting seagrass plots from a donor site to an area which had been heavily degraded by human activities. For soft corals, we trialled different transplantation techniques to determine the most successful and cost effective way restoring these vulnerable habitats. So far, the soft coral transplantations seemed to be effective and are still continuously monitored to determine their viability and growth. The seagrass transplants were, unfortunately, not as successful as the ones which created the seagrass meadow we initially evaluated. Much of the transplanted area disappeared even though the same transplantation technique was used. The unpredictable response of degraded systems towards restoration actions is one of the big challenges ecological restoration faces. I therefore decided to dedicate the next few years of my life to do a PhD (funding to be approved, so fingers crossed!). In a nutshell, my project will aim to identify and test the critical factors that are necessary to overcome ecological thresholds which are essentially barriers to the successful restoration of marine habitats.

In my opinion the top three most important things or issues are 1) ignorance and a disconnection between humans and the environment, 2) “nationalism”, and 3) a lack of political will to make hard but necessary decisions.”

Considering the urgent need for action, do you think academic research has to prioritize certain subjects? For instance, some people say that, despite the fact that it is a huge problem, too much attention and funding is spent on plastic pollution.

Yes I strongly agree that research has to prioritise certain subjects. For the people who have found their passion in areas that are not necessarily a critical topic at the moment, to prioritise does not mean to focus all resources. But we are facing big environmental challenges that need to be addressed by extensive and, therefore, costly research which unfortunately has to come at the expense of decreased funding in other areas. Regarding the issue of plastic pollution, this topic has gained immense attention in the scientific community and the general public in recent years. The level of knowledge we currently have is, of course, a result of an increase in the number of projects dealing with the issue. I’m far from being an expert on plastic pollution but I think that we have already gathered enough evidence of its detrimental effects in order to develop practical solutions. Money should be better spent on doing something about this issue rather than accumulating more and more information which may not necessarily add any critical information.

What do you feel are the three most important things or habits we have to change to turn things around?

In my opinion the top three most important things or issues are 1) ignorance and a disconnection between humans and the environment, 2) “nationalism”, and 3) a lack of political will to make hard but necessary decisions.

The way that most of us live in the modern age causes a disconnection between our everyday life and the natural environment. The air we breathe, the food we eat and everything else that nature provides us with are taken for granted and often people don’t even know where their food comes from. And even though people are becoming increasingly aware of the issues, it is all too easy to just ignore the risks and consequences and pretend that it doesn’t concern us. Because otherwise you would have to take responsibility for your own actions and change the way you live. And let’s be honest….the large majority of people would rather live in ignorance and bliss. What we need is a change in people’s mentality and view of the world. We have one planet that provides us with what we need and it is our joined responsibility to live in a way to ensure a sustainable future.

I also feel that the idea of “Our country first” and very nationalist ideals are a big part of the current global crisis. Everyone for themselves and the tendency towards short term economical gain opposed to long term stability, are just some of the reasons why global initiatives and agreements don’t meet their objectives. This also ties into my third point as political leaders rather secure their votes by satisfying national needs, opposed to tackling issues on a global scale that will ultimately impact all of us, but won’t give them the votes they need to stay in power.

We cannot change our political systems from one day to the other but we have to believe that change starts with us! Recycle, use alternative modes of transport, avoid plastic and be aware of the impact that your life has on the environment. Make it obvious to our leaders that we as a population demand for action and will only give our vote for a government that will enact actual change.

It is 2050 – What is Jan Verbeek doing and what will the planet and the oceans look like?

Tricky one! My crystal ball showed me a few different scenarios regarding the state of our planet and the world’s oceans, depending on our actions in the near future 🙂 To be very honest with you, I’m not sure where we are heading and if our societies will manage to make the right decisions in the limited time we have left. We might live in a world which is becoming increasingly damaged with most of our ecosystems degraded or lost, causing natural catastrophes and political instability. But we might very well turn things around if we find the societal and political will for rapid change. If we have the will and the right tools, we can restore what we’ve destroyed and find a new way to live sustainably. Habitat restoration, if the right techniques and approaches are developed, can be one such instrument.

But one thing is certain; I will play an active role in the conservation and restoration of our marine environment. In addition to hands on restoration actions and following my passion of diving, I aspire to work closely with governmental and non-governmental organisations at an international level in an advisory role. I am passionate about research but I wouldn’t feel that I am doing enough if I would not try and influence and guide future management actions and political decisions.

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