Dr Joanna Girvan

Dr Joanna Girvan is an aquatic ecologist and a fervent advocate for Scotland’s freshwater environment.

Joanna’s passion for water evolved from an early childhood interest in everything related to water. “I remember when I was really young being fascinated with water, watching fish swimming and finding them mesmerising. The freshwater world is hidden and not many people realise the whole universe that exists just below the surface of the water.”

This early interest evolved and led her towards a BSc in zoology and a PhD in aquatic ecology from the University of Edinburgh. In a career spanning more than ten years, she has worked in both the private and public sectors with a particular focus on catchment management, protected species surveys, river restoration and habitat.

When not undertaking research, Joanna dedicates time to engaging with local communities and seeking funding for the many improvement schemes that could make a difference.

As a freshwater ecologist with the River Forth Fisheries Trust for the past three years, Joanna is actively involved with the Trust’s endeavours to conserve and protect freshwater fish and their environments in the inland and coastal waters of the River Forth catchment. On a day-to-day basis, her role can include stakeholder communications, reporting, planning, community engagement and field research which enables Joanna to spend a great deal of time in the water:

“For about six months of the year I will be out in the field working during the day and that will inevitably involve wading around in rivers,” says Joanna. “I survey fish communities, or the habitat that is available for them; aquatic mammals, riparian zones and, more recently, looking at areas of morphological damage in the channel or where there have been negative impacts from land use.”  The reports generated will often be used to inform the planning process which in turn allows for catchment wide prioritization.

Joanna’s work is dedicated to improving the habitat of freshwater fish as this is the key to improving the health of fish populations in a sustainable way. “For salmon and trout, the young are subject to density dependent mortality. Basically, the more space there is available, the greater the number that survive; and the better the quality of the habitat, the higher the densities that the habitat can sustain.

The RFFT’s charitable status means that securing funds is paramount for taking forward the many environmental improvement and protection projects identified. As Joanna explains, “Funding is not that easy to come by, but it is possible if you fit the criteria for certain funding bodies. You have to show multiple benefits and there is particular interest in flood management, climate proofing and community involvement.”

“We cover a large district with 10 major river systems and for each we have identified between 5-10 projects – most of which are currently unfunded – related to habitat improvement and educational activity,” says Joanna. The cost of each habitat improvement project is significant. “The amount of scoping that’s required beforehand can have a significant impact on the overall cost of a project. Any changes that you make to any part of a river can have unforeseen impacts downstream and to predict these you have to do a lot of baseline work.”

The RFFT works closely with local communities to achieve its aims and Joanna illustrates how the efforts of individuals can have a significant benefit for the water environment. “A community group – Slamannan Angling and Protective Association – has being undertaking small scale habitat improvements for the River Avon near Linlithgow over the last four years and we have been working with them trying to establish baseline conditions for the fish community there. SEPA has also got involved and we are currently seeking funding for barrier removal and habitat and water quality improvement. Between us, we have expanded the scope of the river restoration project to catchment scale, all thanks to the efforts of a few individuals.”

Engaging with local communities is an important and rewarding element of Joanna’s work. “So many people are affected by how we look after our rivers and access them; it’s only fair that everybody has their say. We invest significant time in community engagement and involvement.  From a Trust point of view, because we only have three members of staff, we rely heavily on the efforts of our volunteers and with their support we are able to turn out a workforce in excess of 100. The overall benefits – for the Trust, our environment and the people who get involved – are huge and we really appreciate their efforts.”

Joanna feels privileged to work so closely with our freshwater environment, relishing the tranquil ambience it creates, and thoroughly enjoys it in her spare time too. “I particularly enjoy the water when walking my dog, Bonnie. She loves to swim and paddle and I’m very lucky because I live right next to the Water of Leith in Edinburgh.”

Joanna describes our relationship with the water environment as one rooted in complacency. “We take our relationship with the water environment for granted,” she says. “In general, many people regard our water resource as being infinite, which it isn’t, and don’t realise the damage we do without really realising. We need drinking water and energy from hydro schemes, but as a society we can take more care when we use water and get a balance between the need to use it and the need to minimise the damage that we do to it. We can easily make significant improvements to our water environment. We know how to do it and in many areas we know what needs doing. It’s just a case of getting the funding and paying for it.”