Interview Eleni Melis and Gerben IJntema

On the 3rd and 4th of February (2023) Wageningen Marine Research is organising the hackathon 'ForeSea the Future Hack’. Especially for this hackathon WMR is offering access to a unique, never-before-compiled dataset on the ecology and fisheries of the North Sea. In this interview Chiefs Data Eleni Melis and Gerben IJntema give you an insight of what to expect.

Chiefs Data - an introduction

Both Eleni and Gerben work with marine data on a daily basis, as team members for the Marine Ecology Dynamics group. Eleni, who is originally from Northern Germany, is a quantitative ecologist with a focus on marine ecology, descriptive statistics and statistical analysis. Her data work mostly consists of statistics and some modelling too. Her primary interests are the human impacts in the marine ecosystem and ecosystem relationships. She has a Marine Biology bachelor. Data analysis became her main focus during her master thesis, when she studied the influence of bivalve aquaculture on waterbird populations.

Gerben is a theoretical ecologist. His data work mainly consists of modelling and simulation. His key expertise lies in marine and fisheries ecology, theoretical biology and ecosystem services. He has a particular interest in the behavioural aspect of dynamics, of fish, other animals, and also human behaviour. During his studies he visited Asia as a marine biologist. He discovered that many sustainability problems were driven by social factors. Gerben: “It’s the complex interplay of all these causes, what interests me.”

Eleni: “Our role at the upcoming hackathon is to get the data in order. I am looking into what data is available, and compiling that into a relevant offer consisting of both research data and open data. We are trying to offer a high-quality dataset, without blanks and holes. For instance, to analyse how the North Sea is changing, we need good historical data.”

Gerben: “During the hackathon we will try to make sure that the data is ready to go, and participants won’t need a lot of time to dive into the data. Probably we will set up a collaborative space in Github, or in Teams. We’ll work something out. And we are also prepping some of our colleagues, so we have ample experienced marine ecologists on board to help familiarise teams with the dataset we are providing for the hackathon.”

Climate change research

Climate change is rapidly warming the North Sea. Various effects of this on many species are already visible. These changes may change the rich marine life and production sectors of the North Sea. How is marine research contributing to coping mechanisms and how do marine ecologists look at the problem of climate change?

Gerben: “We know it’s coming, whether we like it or not. It’s already there, it’s visible and tangible. As researchers we focus on questions like ‘What is coming?’ And ‘What can we do to minimise the effects?’. We can see the effects on nature, on fish distribution, fish size etc., and we are looking into potential effects on the rest of the ecosystem and the fishing industry. We are focussing on mitigation and adaptation strategies. We need to face what is coming, and research will help us do this as informed and smart as possible.”

Eleni: “Of course, we are all worried. But shear panic does not help. As researchers our task is to investigate, help understand and also contribute to drafting new small solutions. The North Sea is a very busy economic hot spot, where many different interests are at stake. As marine ecologists we are there to indicate consequences of activities from a nature perspective. Through our scientific work we hope to offer a good basis for planning and decision making.”

Data for the ForeSea the Future Hackathon

The four focus areas for the data for the hackathon are the following:

  • Abiotic – for instance Chlorophyll and Sea surface temperature
  • Biological – for instance Contextual Data, e.g. Predator (marine mammals + birds) distribution
  • Fish Data
    - Traits such as Body shape, maturation etc.
    - Survey data (that sample the North Sea to get a feeling for the distribution and presence of the fish)
  • Fisheries & Economic
    - Data Landing data, and
    - Basic oil price time series.

Eleni: “We will be using satellite data and research sample data to provide measurements on sea surface temperatures, chlorophyll concentration, pH and other relevant indicators. We will also include important open sources such as the Biotic database, which contains information on over 40 biological trait categories on selected benthic species (benthic fauna living in or on the seafloor). For biological characteristics of North Sea fish, we will provide a large data set on things like body shape, fin type, maturation, biogeography, diet type, trophic level and offspring size. Part of this data is actual survey data, which we collect ourselves, as part of an international research effort. For instance, we sample the North Sea twice each year for a wide range of fish. We have been doing this for a few decades, so it also gives information on distribution.”

Gerben: “Using data from the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) and other survey data, we can also look into parameters such as absolute and relative catch numbers (e.g. Catch per Unit of Effort for 1 Hour of Fishing), fishing costs and important trade and economic information, like landing data (what fish, how much, which fish, where is it from), but also, for instance, basic time series for oil prizes. There are of course also privacy concerns that we need to take into account. At some point such data becomes very sensitive, both commercially and from a privacy perspective. There is some data that we handle as a research institute, but we are not at liberty to share this data with third parties. With regards to the hackathon however, there is plenty of data to go around. We will have to manage our time wisely and focus on data that is easily given access to and will be around post-hackathon, too”. 

Participants for the hackathon

Wageningen Marine Research is looking for a total of 25 to 30 participants. You can either apply as an individual or as a team. The ambition is to have four or five well-balanced teams. Besides marine ecology, biology, behavioural science, the idea is mainly to mobilise people with a background in data analysis and data modelling. Ideally the teams will hold members with expertise in Data Science, Machine Learning, Data Visualisation and/or Statistics.

Gerben: “The hackathon is getting a lot of attention from people from the marine world. The unique selling point for the hackathon however is that the set-up is interdisciplinary. We are hoping to attract some interest from data scientists (ML/AI) and experts in the area of data visualisation. They do not necessarily need to have a background in marine ecology, as we will provide such expertise as research team.”

Finally, asked for some recommended reading and listening for the upcoming holidays, Eleni refers to the TED Talk by legendary ocean researcher Sylvia Earle. Gerben points to this long read on climate change effects on biology and climate change effects and this overview of the European seas and coasts. For the projects of Wageningen Marine Research can also browse the theme Climate and Coast on the WUR website.

Want to know more about the upcoming hackathon? Stay tuned by dropping us an email at