Marine Biologist - About the job Alternative titles
Kaimātai Koiora Moana
Marine biologists study plants and animals that live in sea water, and their relationships with each other and their environment.
Call us on 0800 222 733
Pay for marine biologists working in government research organisations and universities depends on their qualifications and experience.
- Marine biologists with Master’s degrees usually earn around $55,000-$75,000 per year.
- Senior marine biologists, who usually have PhDs, may earn $76,000-$94,000.
- With more responsibility and experience, pay could rise to about $130,000 a year or more.
Marine biologists working in the private sector may earn more than this.
Source: Landcare Research & Universities New Zealand, 'University Staff Academic Salaries and Remuneration', 2012.
What you will do
Marine biologists may do some or all of the following:
- observe marine plants and animals in their natural environment
- study the impact of pollution on marine life
- identify, classify and preserve different types of marine life
- estimate population growth and life expectancy
- plan and run field studies and experiments
- use computer modelling techniques to predict future events in the marine environment
- report the results of their studies in papers for science journals and in commercial reports.
Freshwater biologists do similar work, except that they study plants and animals living in rivers, lakes and ponds.
Skills and knowledge
Marine biologists need to have:
- knowledge of marine science, biology, and chemistry
- research skills
- maths and computer skills
- writing skills, for writing reports and for publications.
- usually work regular office hours, but they may also work longer hours when doing fieldwork
- work in offices and laboratories, and they also work on boats, at sea, or in isolated coastal areas in all weather conditions
- travel to field study sites, and may travel around the country or overseas to attend conferences or training.
What's the job really like?
Drew Lohrer - Marine Biologist
Myth number one – marine biologists work with large animals only
"Some people think we work only with dolphins or whales, but it’s not always large animals like that. I mainly work on creatures that live on the sea floor. I focus on sea urchins, shellfish and worms, trying to understand their roles in the ecosystem."
Myth number two – marine biologists work in glamorous environments
Though the work is important, it's often done in an unglamorous environment. "When I dive, it’s mostly in low-visibility conditions, and my world view is often a patch of mud! However, I do get to go to exciting places like the Antarctic to study coastal systems. It is surreal diving there – the water is crystal clear and the types and amounts of animals you see are just astounding."
Myth number three – marine biologists get to dive all the time
"I don’t get to dive a lot of the time. But, there’s no monotony because I do different things all the time. Within a year, I might write proposals to get funding for what I want to do, then do fieldwork and perform experiments. Finally, I would analyse the data and write up my findings."
Bevan Hunter talks about marine science - 2.30 mins. (Video courtesy of Te Puni Kōkiri - for more videos go to www.maorifuturemakers.com)
I did my studies over in Tasmania, an Applied Science Degree that’s learning science but applying it in a practical way, very hands-on – it’s a hands-on degree. I’m a qualified Marine Biologist, fish biologist, my major was in Aquaculture, I’ve got a sub-major in Chemistry and Microbiology.
I was able to work with my family on our pāua farm and crayfish farm; I did a bit of aquaculture consultancy as well. Just watching the water flow in our tanks and feeding the little pāua and watching their little feelers come up and even diving, going for a dive, coming to the beach even like this, looking around and understanding what’s going on, you can sort of get a good idea of what’s happening in the environment just by having a look around, so I think those things you just can’t put a price on. I was surprised to learn that crayfish aren’t a shellfish, they’re actually a crustacean, crayfish are like the rats of the sea they clean up all the dead animals and these sorts of things, they’re bottom dwellers, bottom feeders. For me that was quite a surprise cause I really love eating crayfish. The molluscs with the most advanced eye systems, they’re squid so it surprised me to think that squid was a mollusc, I mean there’s so many things that you learn.
I think if you’ve got Māori coastal property and you’re interested or if your iwi has had their settlement and your iwi is interested in getting into these, by all means, I think go talk to your own scientists first.
My Uncle Paki Harrison is one of the people I admire the most, I was really amazed that the knowledge that these tohunga have even from an applied science perspective, I could always learn something from him. He told me that there was another species of pāua out in the Coromandel Peninsula and I didn’t really believe him because it hasn’t been discovered yet, so I was just amazed at the knowledge that our people have. I think in some cases that because Māori had a good 600 year plus head start out knowledge is probably superior and still is to this day. My grandfather once told me “I don’t understand why these Pākehā always take the big fish, in our day we used to farm the sea, so we use to take the small ones so that the big ones were left for breeding, I don’t understand why they do it the other way around.” Yeah not necessarily everything we do in our western society is right.
To our young ones, go hard and study and learn everything you possibly can so that our people don’t have to pay top dollar for scientists that might not give our people the best advice, certainly a wonderful field to work in.
To become a marine biologist you usually need to have a Masters or PhD majoring in marine biology, marine ecology, marine conservation, zoology or a related science.
A tertiary entrance qualification is required to enter further training. NCEA Level 3 is preferred. Useful subjects include biology, chemistry, physics, English and maths with statistics and/or calculus.
Marine biologists need to be:
- enquiring and observant
- good at problem-solving
- good at planning and organising
- good at communciating.
Useful experience for marine biologists includes:
- technician placements during summer holidays
- volunteer work in ecology and conservation
- diving experience
- work with plants and animals.
Marine biologists need to have good hand-eye co-ordination.
They might also need to have a good level of fitness for doing fieldwork, such as diving.
View information on courses in the course database
Find out more about training
- Department of Conservation
- (04) 471 0726 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.doc.govt.nz
- Environmental Protection Authority
- (04) 916 2426 - email@example.com - www.epa.govt.nz
- National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)
- 0800 746 464 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.niwa.co.nz
- Royal Society of New Zealand
- (04) 472 7421 - www.royalsociety.org.nz/
years of training usually required
What are the chances of getting a job?
According to Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment estimates, the number of marine biologists dropped by 6% between 2010 and 2012. This is because funding for research has decreased because of the 2008-2009 economic recession. While most marine biologists have held onto their jobs, fewer new vacancies are now appearing.
Job opportunities are expected to pick up again as economic conditions improve and new sources of funding become available.
Best job opportunities for marine biologists with experience in population modelling, toxicology or aquaculture
Marine biologists with skills in the following areas are likely to have the best chances of finding work:
- Population modelling – for example, showing how fishing quotas can affect fish populations.
- Toxicology – needed to help assess levels of toxic waste in rivers and seas.
- Aquaculture – needed to develop techniques to improve productivity on marine farms. Aquaculture is one of New Zealand's fastest-growing industries, with the Government aiming to triple the sector's size by 2025.
Fisheries modeller and toxicologist appear on Immigration New Zealand’s long-term skill shortage list, which means the Government is actively encouraging people with expertise in these areas to come and work in New Zealand.
Types of employers varied
Employers of marine biologists include:
- Crown research institutes (CRIs), such as the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) – the largest employer of marine biologists
- government agencies, such as the Ministry of Fisheries and the Department of Conservation
- regional councils
- private companies
- Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA)
- Fish and Game New Zealand
- the Cawthron Institute – a community-owned research centre.
- Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, '2003-2012 Occupation Data', (prepared for Careers New Zealand), 2014.
- Immigration New Zealand, 'Long-term Skill Shortage List', accessed April 2014, (www.immigration.govt.nz).
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Other vacancy websites
Progression and specialisations
Marine biologists with a PhD can apply for a postdoctoral fellowship at research organisations or universities. You may need to do two or three postdoctoral fellowships (usually lasting two or three years each) before getting a permanent scientist position.
After about 15 years’ experience, marine biologists can progress into senior research scientist, team leader or management roles.
Marine biologists can also choose to do research in specific fields, such as:
- toxicology (study of poisons)
- fish reproduction
How many people are doing this job?
Updated 4 Aug 2015