Emily Cunningham – marine conservation consultant, researcher and educator working across the UK

By Hannah Schartmann.

Hi Emily! What steps did you take to become a marine conservation specialist and which skills are important to pursue a career as a conservationist? 

I always knew I wanted to work in marine conservation but after graduating from my integrated master’s degree in marine biology, I had no idea how to get a job in that sector. My career path since has been one of trial, error and perseverance. I’ve relocated 7 times since graduating, chasing and creating opportunities and adventures. Here is my advice for anyone wanting to work in marine conservation:

1. Volunteer – it helps you work out what you want to do as well as giving you experience to put on your CV. Volunteering is also worthwhile if you’re considering changing careers into marine conservation. It helps you see the reality of what’s out there and if it’s for you, as well as getting some experience. 

2. Your first job (probably) won’t be your dream job, but that’s okay. 

3. You’ll only find what’s right for you by trying things. 

4. You don’t need a degree in marine science to contribute to marine conservation. We don’t just need ecologists to tackle this environmental crisis – conservation is about people too. You also definitely don’t need a PhD to work in marine conservation. There is still a lot of snobbery around having a PhD – I get sniffed at a lot, but I’m one of many successful PhD-less conservationists that let our impact do the talking.  

5. Create your own opportunities Making a successful career in (marine) conservation is about finding your niche – the intersection between what the world needs and what you’re good at. There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all path to get there as (marine) conservation takes a village – we don’t just need scientists, we need people with different backgrounds, perspectives and skillsets. Don’t compare yourself to others as we all have something unique to contribute and don’t worry if you’ve not followed the marine biology route. Some of the best marine conservationists I know come from different backgrounds – and they’re all the better at what they do because of it. 

What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?

I grew up in the middle of England, nearly as far away from the sea as you can get in Great Britain, but was lucky enough to be taken on seaside holidays as a child. Summer evenings spent rockpooling and skimming stones were where I felt most happy and sparked a fascination with the sea. Like many 8-year-old girls, I wanted to be a marine biologist when I grew up, but somehow it never faded – despite being told by my school’s career advisor that it wasn’t a real job! My fascination turned from marine biology to marine conservation thanks to the volunteering I did during my degree – mostly seeing the impact that the work of NGOs such as North Wales Wildlife Trust and the Marine Conservation Society were having.

What are your current projects about?

As an independent freelance consultant, I regularly juggle lots of projects – some of the work I’m contracted to do is just a discrete few days and some are longer-term projects. Right now I’m leading a project investigating the feasibility of reintroducing native oysters to a location in Northern England, doing some visioning work for an NGO on blue carbon and nature-based climate solutions and tying up the last bits of paperwork on a huge funding bid that would make a big difference for wildlife and people in the UK. I’m also a Trustee at a national charity and writing a book about marine conservation.

On which achievement are you in particular proud of?

I am most proud of the major marine conservation/engagement scheme I have had a hand in developing – but we’ve got to wait on the funding decision before I can shout too much about it! The scheme focuses on a really undervalued and overlooked bit of the UK coast, but it has so much potential – if successful, the scheme would not only benefit wildlife, but thousands of people too. Fingers crossed! 

What are your goals and plans for the future?

My goal has only ever been for my work to have genuine conservation impact, which has allowed me to be pretty open-minded about the work that I take. I’m increasingly interested in blue carbon and how marine rewilding can tangibly contribute towards tackling both the extinction and climate crises. 

Plans wise: I’m enjoying being self-employed, but I certainly wouldn’t turn down the right job role! I’m also writing a book, which I hope will further hone my thinking and be useful and interesting to others. Who knows what’s around the corner…?

Was there any situation where you have doubted you were doing the right thing?

Going freelance was a big scary step. I’m a first-generation graduate and my family thought I was crazy – what about pensions and a stable income?! At the time I had the mindset of “try it and see”, knowing that if it didn’t work out then I wouldn’t have lost anything; but there was still an inner monologue of doubt – who was I to think I could make it on my own?

Well, it hasn’t been easy but I’m so grateful that I went for it. I’ve done some really interesting and impactful work over the past 2 years and my work-life balance is the best it has ever been. Being freelance offers me the opportunity to take on passion projects and other interesting opportunities; and since 2017, I’ve co-led research expeditions, published research on UK humpback whales (and been interviewed on national TV about it), led a marine ecology field course in Indonesia, become a Trustee for a national charity and stuck my out-of-office on when the sun’s shining and the mountains/coast are calling. Watching dolphins on a Tuesday afternoon when everyone else is at work is a top notch feeling!

Jobs in the field of marine conservation can sometimes be exhausting. How do you keep motivated?

I make sure to get a regular dose of vitamin sea. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of the problems facing our oceans, so I’ve learnt the value of taking time to enjoy the ocean. Normally this involves rockpooling, getting out in my sea kayak or walking on the coast path looking for cetaceans. I also find being around other (marine) conservationists incredibly motivating so I make sure to attend at least one conference a year.

What is your opinion: How should a healthy ocean look like?

I want to see healthy, productive, resilient seas that are helping us mitigate climate change as well as continuing to provide oxygen, food, energy, recreation and wellbeing benefits in spite of significant and rapid changes in ambient conditions. We need to take action to manage anthropogenic pressure to allow our seas the time and space to adapt and recover. The rewilding of our seas requires a careful balance between exploitation and conservation and I’m excited about a future which encourages the protection and restoration of our seas. 

In the UK I want to see: saltmarsh, seagrass and kelp forest (blue carbon) habitats thriving all around our coast. I want to see the restoration of biogenic habitats, including oyster reefs and mussel beds. I want to see functioning food webs, with apex predator populations thriving. I want to see our fish and shellfish stocks at sustainable population levels, caught using fishing practices that benefit local communities done within environmental limits. I want to see marine renewable energy capture grow, but not at the expense of our wildlife and wild places. I want our ocean’s contribution to carbon cycling and storage to increase towards its full potential. 

This requires: the designation and proper management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in remaining areas of high biodiversity/carbon-storage value, an ecosystem-based approach to the restoration and enhancement of blue carbon habitats and oceanic blue carbon functions and placing the ecosystem-service value of our marine assets at the forefront of policy and management decisions. 

What do you think are the main threats to the ocean?

Climate change, political inaction, overemphasis on plastic pollution. 

Do you have any messages for the people regarding marine conservation?

You don’t need to be a marine biologist to make a contribution to marine conservation. We can all take little actions: reduce your carbon and waste footprints, become an ocean advocate – support campaigns for MPAs and better managed seas, use your vote wisely, choose sustainably sourced (preferably local) fish and shellfish, join a marine citizen science project, report your sightings of marine wildlife, and encourage your friends, family and workplace to act too. It’s going to take more than paper straws to save our seas. 

If you’re keen to develop a career in marine conservation, first take stock of your existing skills. If you have a background in marketing, could you work for an NGO helping them raise their profile and achieve more good? If you’re a teacher, could you run beach school sessions and help inspire the next generation of marine stewards? We need people from all different backgrounds and with many different skills to safeguard our seas, don’t immediately leap into a marine biology degree. 

Last but not least, I feel hopeful. The level of public interest and support for marine conservation is unprecedented and fills me with optimism. Thank you, reader, for everything you’re doing to protect our seas – whether that’s personally or professionally, every little helps.

I’d love to connect with others from this community. If you enjoyed this interview, found it helpful or disagree with something I’ve said, please get in touch 😊 


Follow Emily on:
Twitter
@EG_Cunningham
Instagram @marinebiologylife
Facebook: Marine Biology Life
LinkedIn: Emily G Cunningham

www.emilycunningham.co.uk


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