During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been joining SNH staff working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the varied work they do. Inevitably the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected much of the normal day-to-day activity at SNH. This month Joanne Beaton, admin support based in our Oban office, tells us how staff have been adapting as they help to ensure our important work on the critically endangered common or flapper skate continues.
The lockdown has had an impact on many of the normal duties carried out by SNH staff. For example, admin support staff are not in the office to welcome visitors and answer the phone and our National Nature Reserve staff are unable to get outside.
Some staff have therefore been redeployed to new tasks, and one of these includes matching skate photos for the Skatespotter project, a partnership between SNH and the Scottish Association for Marine Science. Volunteer anglers take photos of skate that they have caught and released, and submit these directly to SNH or upload them to the Skatespotter website. This provides valuable data on the movements of individual fish over time.
While all fieldwork on the skate project has stopped, SNH project coordinator Jane Dodd is still busy managing data, including photos collected by skate charter skippers and anglers over the last few months. The photos all need to be matched to the online catalogue so during lockdown, myself and a number of colleagues from the Argyll and the Outer Hebrides team volunteered to help.
Skate are huge fish reaching up to 2.85m long and 2m wide but when comparing them to the catalogued pictures it is all about the detail. The variety of patterning is amazing, including spots, spots with holes in (or doughnuts as we call them), lines and whorls of spots, marbling and zig-zag effects.
After a few hours of comparing skate photos they start to take on characters, some are beautiful divas with perfectly round spots and fabulous symmetrical patterns while others have more random, faded spots and look like they have had an all-night session!
Some skate have beautiful symmetrical patterns.
While others have more faded spots and more random patterns.
This skate is rather pale and plain but its long nose reminds me of a Womble (younger readers may have to Google Wombles!)
The photos are matched by three different people without conferring and knowing previous results. This removes human error and makes the data more robust for scientific purposes. When Skatespotter was first set up a computer program was trialled but unfortunately it missed more than a quarter of matches made by the human eye so until we have a bespoke programme for skate it is over to the volunteers!
On a personal level, now that we are into the fifth week of lockdown it feels normal to work from my kitchen table alongside my husband and the cat who has decided his new favourite place to sit is on the modem for our Wi-Fi! SNH was well prepared for us working at home as we were set up for agile working with laptops more than a year ago and our IT staff have been fabulous making sure we are all properly connected and able to work normally.
Our managers have also been really understanding and supportive and we realise how lucky we are to be able to continue to work in these difficult circumstances. Although it has been challenging, I have been surprised at how easy it has been to change my regular pattern of working and I have quickly learned to accept that you have to do what you can and try not to worry about what is out of your hands.
Outside of work I’m a keen diver and while that has come to a halt during lockdown, I am using my spare time to manage my library of diving photos and hoping to get back into the water soon. Meanwhile I am lucky I have a garden I pretend to tame and a hill at the back of our house – if I need a change of scene I walk up and see this wonderful view of Oban and surrounding area.
We at SNH would like to take this opportunity to thank all the skippers that contribute to Skatespotter. Without you there would be no project and we hope you’re all able to get back out to sea very soon.
All skate pics courtesy of Skatespotter unless indicated.