EH Sustainability
Thursday, 8 December 2022

UL Sustainability Challenge – Sustainable Shores

Earlier this year, we launched the UL Sustainability Challenge to encourage our students to develop research projects to tackle the Climate Crisis.

The competition was open to both undergraduate and postgraduate students, and offered up to €10,000 in funding to develop working pilot projects to show how their innovative ideas could be scaled up to make an impact on the biggest challenge of our time.

Having been overwhelmed with inventive entries, we have now announced the winners of the inaugural Sustainability Challenge, and are excited to showcase their ideas – and the research that they’ll be conducting over the coming months.

Sustainable Shores: Ireland’s Life Below Water

Éabha Hughes, a PhD applicant in the Department of Education and Health Sciences, has developed an exciting project to tackle UN Sustainability Development Goal 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’.

Her project focuses on education for local communities to help them understand how they can reduce and prevent damage to marine and aquatic ecosystems – and how they might be sustainably restored to their natural state.

She hopes to use the opportunity and funding to produce an educational book, a website with downloadable resources, and workshops for use at University of Limerick and secondary schools nationwide to build awareness, promote citizen science, and get people engaged in climate action.

Professor Norelee Kennedy, Vice President of Research at University of Limerick said: “The biodiversity at our doorstep is brought to life with Éabha’s research into the Ireland’s shores, in particular the river Shannon. This project not only supports the education of the next generation of environmental champions but it also has the potential to bring the wonder of life below Irish shores to a global audience.”

We spoke with Éabha to understand what winning the Sustainability Challenge meant to her, and what she hopes to achieve:

Q: Congratulations on being a winner of the Sustainability Challenge. What does it mean to you to have your project chosen and funded?

It’s a huge honour to have my project chosen and funded, I’m absolutely thrilled!

One of my guiding principles when it comes to research of any kind is that people don’t care about what they don’t know, and I truly believe that educating people about the differing aspects of the climate crisis is our best bet at mitigating its effects.

The climate crisis and biodiversity loss we’re experiencing are two sides of the same coin that Humans have forged through years of living unsustainably and isolated from nature. Very few people know about the incredible biodiversity along Ireland’s shorelines, even less so about our freshwater habitats.

This is an opportunity to show people how beautiful our life below water is, and why it’s crucial for us to protect, conserve and restore it.

Working on this project is a dream come true for me.

Marine and aquatic life has a very special place in my heart; when I can, I spend as much time as possible either in or near water.

As the climate crisis has accelerated, I’ve seen some of my favourite critters disappearing entirely from rock pools and beaches where ten years ago, you couldn’t take a step without seeing them.

And it’s not just the ocean or rivers; when was the last time you saw a hairy molly caterpillar in the garden? When you really start to look, it’s hard to ignore the scale of the biodiversity loss we’re facing.

Q: Why did you choose this particular project?

I’m extremely passionate about marine and aquatic life. From a very young age I’ve always loved trawling through streams and rock pools to find new species.

The more I looked, the more I found species that had very few records around Ireland, like Erato voluta, a tiny sea snail that hasn’t been seen since at least 1993. What’s worrying is that we don’t have a thorough understanding of how these species interact with each other; if one tiny critter disappears, it could threaten the entire food web and ultimately, us.

When the WWF Living Planet Index Report 2020 was released, I remember crying as I read through it. Since the 1970s, freshwater populations had declined by 84%. Now, the 2022 report is out, providing a more in-depth look into marine and aquatic populations and the situation is truly dire. We need to prevent any further damage to our marine and aquatic ecosystems before any more species can be lost.

I originally started developing the educational book as part of my Final Year Project with my supervisor Dr. Audrey O’Grady. I was fortunate enough to be awarded the UL Science & Engineering Summer Research Bursary, which allowed me to continue my work on the book over summer, travelling around Ireland photographing and cataloguing our marine and aquatic life. I developed this into three separate books, two for secondary schools and one for the public.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that the best way to engage people in climate action is to show them what it’s for and why it matters. It’s difficult to know what’s the best thing to do for the climate when things like reusable straws have been touted as the ‘holy grail’ of sustainable living.

Not that reusable straws aren’t helping, they are to an extent, there’s just so much more we can do.

Q: What do you hope to achieve over the coming months?

Goal 14 is all about protecting, conserving and restoring marine and aquatic habitats. In the next few weeks I’ll be conducting a full-scale ecological assessment of the University of Limerick’s freshwater habitats to get an idea of where we really are. From there, species populations can be monitored, threats to their survival can be identified and action plans to protect them can be drawn up.

This will go hand-in-hand with a full review of the university’s Buildings and Estates policies on things like waste management, biodiversity and green campus. Existing policy will be assessed and realigned with Goal 14, and new policy will be created to halt unsustainable practices such as the use of certain cleaning products outdoors which can be extremely harmful to aquatic life.

Through collaboration with the School of Education, I’ll be working on the educational book to pilot it in local secondary schools in the new year. I’m also looking to incorporate the book into some existing modules surrounding sustainability within the University of Limerick.

The most important thing will be getting the information out to people as effectively as possible; this will be supported through the workshops and a website where people can find key actions they can take to support Goal 14, explore our marine and freshwater biodiversity, and come together and organize as a united front. There’s strength in numbers, and knowledge is power.

This project will hopefully create a community of people equipped with the information and skills needed to tackle the larger issues surrounding Goal 14, such as strengthening Ireland’s conservation laws, building resilient, local and sustainable fisheries, ending the government subsidies contributing to over-fishing, and eliminating marine pollution, agricultural run-off and the dumping of raw sewage into our oceans.

Q: Do you have any advice for other students who want to become more engaged in climate action or sustainability research?

I think the most important thing for people to remember when it comes to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss is to not fall into “climate-doomerism”.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the scale of this crisis, but not all hope is lost. The Gulf Stream threatens to collapse entirely, extreme weather events are becoming increasingly common and biodiversity loss is accelerating. Unfortunately, Humans are woefully short-sighted and we lost our chance to stop climate change; but we can learn from our mistakes. Now it’s up to us (and by us, I mean everyone) to minimize its effects, to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5°C, to build and protect resilient ecosystems that will survive the climate crisis. We owe it to all life on Earth, not just our future generations.

Climate action is intrinsically linked with government; use your vote in local and national elections and support the people willing to take a stand against the unsustainable practices in industry, agriculture and technology.

My second piece of advice is to use your VOICE. Be the thorn in someone’s side. Be persistent, spread the word and don’t give up. Show businesses, corporations, institutions, and local and national governments that you won’t support their unsustainable practices any longer.

Finally, find a community and get involved. There are some truly wonderful organisations that are open to all members of the public. The National Biodiversity Data Centre hosts the nation-wide BioBlitz while CleanCoasts run the Big Beach Clean-up Challenge.

For sustainability research, find an issue that’s close to your heart and you’ll never stop working on it (seriously, it’ll keep you up at night)!

Reach out to academic staff, organisations and institutes. The worst that can happen is someone says “no”, and if that happens then either go back to the drawing board or be persistent. The University of Limerick has so many amazing facilities that I didn’t realize were here until I started working on the Sustainability Challenge, and I completed my undergraduate here! Don’t be afraid to ask around and let your passion show!