James Champkin

Loughborough University


Spawning habitat characteristics of lithophilic fish – using experimental approaches to inform river restoration.


Prof. Paul Wood, Dr. David Ryves & Dr. Andrew Pledger

PhD Summary

In a rapidly changing world characterised by acute anthropogenic pressures, knowledge regarding the effects of environmental change on biodiversity is of key importance. Within-channel degradation of riverine habitats, often through excess fine sediment pollution, is amongst the most common and widely studied forms of freshwater degradation, with deterioration in spawning substrate quality through fine sedimentation associated with global declines in freshwater biodiversity. Despite this, knowledge regarding the environmental tolerances of many species, particularly during their early development, remains limited. This is particularly true for lithophilic (substrate spawning) fishes. Whilst a body of literature on the influence of fine sediment content (“fines”) on the spawning success of some salmonid fishes exists, knowledge of the effects of fines and the variability of other environmental parameters on the spawning of other, typically non-salmonid species, remains limited, despite their ecological, recreational and socio-economic importance in many European rivers. This has consequences which transcend our understanding of fish ecology and without better understanding of the tolerances of river fish eggs and larvae to spawning substrate characteristics and variable abiotic parameters, we do not know whether in-situ spawning habitats are conducive to successful reproduction. This also means we do not currently have any readily quantifiable or transferable method of gauging the success (or failure) of river restoration activities in relation to species-specific environmental parameters or thresholds. In addition, some river restoration projects are limited in their success due to a lack of specific objectives, post-monitoring evaluation and/or consideration of landscape processes that provide the context for specific sedimentation problems. Thus, studies that utilise robust experimental designs are essential for understanding the factors that contribute to successful spawning habitat restoration. This project therefore aims to increase our understanding of the environmental tolerances of some poorly studied yet ecologically, recreationally and economically important freshwater fishes. Further, spawning habitat, nest characteristics and levels of natural recruitment of target species (including barbel, chub and grayling) will be assessed in the natural environment. The project will also investigate how degraded habitats might be improved to increase reproductive success.

What inspires you?

I was lucky enough grow up with a Dad that treasured the natural world. He was a country man of the old school: he loved shooting, ferreting and simply being outside among the stunning English countryside. Throughout my childhood he passed this passion on to me, and some of my earliest memories are of time spent diving into damp hedgerows with cupped hands to catch frogs, collecting crickets to take home and house within plastic tanks, or staring down from bridges into tiny, clearwater streams, watching minnows darting between weed fronds in the flow. From these humble beginnings, I always wanted to keep expanding my knowledge of our incredible natural environment.

Previous Activity

Before starting my PhD, I was working in the small Campaigns Team at the Angling Trust – a non-governmental organisation with a focus on protecting the aquatic environment, improving fisheries and defending anglers’ rights. I am a keen angler myself, and consequently working for the organisation enabled me to mix business with pleasure and indulge my passion. My work predominantly centred around lobbying Government and policy makers for better legislation to tackle issues such as agricultural pollution of rivers, excessive abstraction of water, and commercial over-fishing of marine fish stocks. Given the timing of my role, which started in April 2016 – just months before the surprise referendum result – much of my work became focussed on post-Brexit environmental and fisheries policy, including work around the new Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Bills. A big part of my job was communicating our campaigning activity to anglers, and so I specialised in writing press releases, liaising with journalists, utilising social media and video production. One of my responsibilities was maintaining positive relationships with a number of our most supportive Members of Parliament, so I actually got to take MPs out of The House of Commons and onto the bank on fishing trips– certainly an experience and a major perk of the job!

Why did you choose Docotoral Research?

While working as a campaigner, I always missed being directly involved in science and being based within an academic environment where you’re constantly learning. Having said that, I wasn’t ever determined to undertake a PhD. It just so happened that an exciting project proposal came up while I was searching for a new challenge, and I had become acquainted with one of my now-supervisors during my previous role at the Angling Trust. He informed me of this proposal, and it seemed to perfectly blend my previous experience, passions and contacts in the fisheries sector. And the rest – as they say – is history.

Why did you choose a CENTA Studentship?

The prestige of a CENTA studentship, over and above many other PhD programmes, and the embedded training programme that provides researchers with a diverse skillset were instantly attractive. The generous research budget also helped!

What are your future plans

The CENTA programme will help to broaden my horizons, continue to build my network of contacts and (hopefully) dramatically expand my future career options. At present, I am considering a future in Fisheries Consultancy or Project Management.