Marine Biologist | ECO Canada (2022)

What is a marine biologist? Marine biologists study species that inhabit bodies of water and observe any changes to bodies of water. They also focus on different aspects of marine life, including the process of marine development, how organisms interact with one another and the ecosystem and how pollution may affect marine environments.

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  • At a Glance
  • Job Duties
  • Work Environment
  • Where to Work
  • Education and Skills
  • Role Models
  • Your Impact
  • Occupational Classification
  • Education and Skills

At a Glance

Imagine you’re sitting at your lab bench staring through magnifying lenses at a small invertebrate lying in a specimen dish. You are a marine biologist, and you found a mollusc while diving in a shallow bay off the coast of Vancouver Island.

What’s remarkable about this species of mollusc is that its regular habitat is hundreds of kilometres south of this bay, where ocean temperatures are significantly warmer.

You have been studying this species of mollusc for 10 months now, making dozens of dives and spending countless hours in the lab gathering data to support your hypothesis that warmer ocean temperatures, due to climate change, are altering the distribution of this mollusc species.

You are an expert on the aquatic organisms and fluid environment of this particular bay. You were surprised when you first spotted this mollusc species so far north and applied for a grant to study how and why it has made its way to Vancouver Island.

You’ve hypothesized that climate change has resulted in warmer ocean temperatures in this region, which has made it possible for the mollusc to expand its habitat.

A lot of your research has focused on gathering data and mapping trends to determine if local ocean temperatures have changed significantly in recent years, to the point where the coasts of Vancouver Island have become a useable habitat for species typically found farther south.

On your dives, you collect data on the distribution and abundance of the mollusc inside the bay, as well as gather specimens to take back to the lab. In addition to analyzing water temperature, you study the morphology of your specimens, looking for physiological adaptations that would allow them to survive in colder waters.

When published, your research will contribute to the bank of scientific knowledge that records and predicts the effects of climate change on global ecosystems.

Job Duties

While job duties vary significantly from one position to the next, marine biologists are frequently asked to conduct the following activities:

  • Study the behaviour, evolution, distribution, and relationships among organisms in a marine environment
  • Use electronics and other instruments to measure the physical and chemical properties of water
  • Examine the biodiversity of benthic and pelagic organisms
  • Study the structure of marine communities and assist in the rehabilitation of damaged ecosystems
  • Take samples of marine organisms and conduct laboratory tests using equipment such as electron microscopes
  • Build mathematical models to estimate the distribution and abundance of marine life in specific places
  • Perform environmental impact assessments on projects that may impact both marine life and humans
  • Prepare reports and recommendations for governmental bodies and agencies.
  • Develop and implement long-term programs for monitoring environmental pollution, including developing protocols and monitoring environmental compliance
  • Monitor populations of marine species and those exposed to contaminated sites
  • Assist fisheries management
  • Write grant proposals to fund research
  • Interact with students and the public to educate and discuss concerns about marine issues

Work Environment

It is important to note that field work is one of the most important aspects to this occupation, regardless of what type of organization you work for. This means that marine biologists spend prolonged periods studying various water sources, collecting samples, and observing wildlife.

Marine biologists work in a variety of locations, including:

The office:

  • Preparing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Creating plans and models to contribute towards combatting environmental impacts
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, colleagues, government departments, and the public, and present report findings to clients
  • Writing scientific papers and presenting research findings
  • Conducting literature reviews, researching advancements in marine biology, and consulting with other biology professionals

The field:

  • Deploying equipment from onboard oceanographic research vessels
  • Servicing and testing equipment
  • Conducting field experiments and recording data and observations
  • Observing marine species in their natural habitats
  • Collecting organisms for laboratory research
  • Building experimental equipment such as cages and flowmeters
  • Monitoring water conditions

The lab:

  • Identifying, classifying, and preserving marine organisms
  • Conducting analytical research and laboratory experiments
  • Testing and processing samples for potential contamination

Where to Work

There are a number of places marine biologists can find employment. They include:

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Environmental consulting firms
  • Marine science institutions and aquariums
  • Conservation authorities
  • Aquaculture firms, including fish and shellfish farms
  • Private labs

See current job opportunities for Marine Biologists on theECO Canada Job Board.

Education and Skills

If you are considering a career as a Marine Biologist, you should have a strong interest in:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Computer Science
  • English

In most cases, the minimum education requirement is a university undergraduate degree. A graduate degree is required for independent research.

If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a marine biologist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Marine Biology
  • Animal Science
  • Ecology
  • Aquatic Biology
  • Oceanography
  • Geology
  • Botany
  • Zoology
  • Environmental Science

Certification is not mandatory to work as a marine biologist. However, our Certified Environmental Professional (EP) designation may be useful.


Hard/ Technical Skills (skills obtained through formal education and training programs)

  • Biostatistics
  • Geographic Information Systems
  • Technical writing
  • Risk assessment
  • Knowledge of legislation related to the marine sector
  • Project management

Soft Skills (personal attributes and characteristics)

  • Verbal and written communication
  • Detail-oriented
  • Stamina and endurance for fieldwork
  • Leadership
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Creative thinking

Environmental employers look for professionals who can combine technical knowledge with soft skills. Watch at our free webinar “Essential Not Optional: Skills Needed to Succeed in Canada’s Environmental Industry” or take our Essential Skills courses.

Education and Skills

Shelley Denny

The environment I grew up in really shaped my interest in marine biology. I was raised by my grandmother and lived with her until I went to university. We lived just five minutes from Bras d’Or Lake, ten minutes from the ocean, and a brook ran through our backyard. Not only did all those different types of water surround me, but my grandmother also encouraged my intense curiosity about aquatic life and about nature in general. In other words, I have been interested in marine biology for most of my life—beginning at an age when I didn’t even know that my interest had a name. While high school courses didn’t add much to this interest (I thought my classes were a bit "ho-hum”), I found the university to be really fascinating.

I went to Acadia University where my major was Biology with a concentration in Marine Biology, and my minors were Chemistry and Psychology. I loved university for scientific research and enjoyed the mental challenges that it brought. Eventually, my university career presented other challenges as well; in my third year, I had a child. As a single parent, I struggled, but still found ways to put my daughter first and do well in school. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science and am now enrolled at St. Francis Xavier University where I’m working towards my Master’s in Science, with a concentration in fisheries ecology.

I plan to complete my Ph.D. after that. My first job was with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 1991. In 1992, I landed—without training—in a management position at the Eskasoni Fish & Wildlife Commission. Luckily, I learn quickly, and through experience I’ve come to understand a great deal about the business world. In addition to management, this job has me continuing with various studies on many of the species in the Bras d’Or Lake region. In addition to my work with Eskasoni, I’m also a member of a technical committee that advises the Chiefs of Cape Breton through the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources.

I am a firm believer that we are responsible for our resources. Whether our people fish for ceremonial or commercial reasons, we need to be responsible for sustaining fish stocks. Education provides us with the opportunity to understand and satisfy that responsibility. It also unlocks doors to the many opportunities for Aboriginal youth in the field of marine biology.

Your Impact

As a marine biologist, you raise awareness of the marine environment and look at how changes such as global warming, overfishing, and pollution will affect marine environments.

Part of this role involves observing the positive and negative effects of humans on marine life. This includes plastics being thrown into oceans and putting animals at risk and how oil spills displace marine species and weaken their chances of survival.

Increasingly, we’re beginning to see how specific occupations can be interwoven in so many varying areas of study, and a marine biologist is no different.

Marine biology is a truly interdisciplinary role that involves the knowledge of mathematicians, economists, biological technicians, microbiologists, and even sociologists to better understand the relationship between the oceans, species within, and the role that humans play.

One of the key elements of marine biology is the understanding that for an ecosystem to be stable, both the environment and the species that live in it need to be in equilibrium. If one aspect becomes imbalanced, everything else becomes destabilized.

An example of this comes from the 1992, Cod Moratorium - a ban on fishing cod- which was implemented in Atlantic Canada. The population of cod had become practically due to a lack of regulation and advancements in technology making it possible for fishermen to go deeper into the ocean and trap larger volumes of cod at a time.

Cod was being fished quicker than it could replenish. The cod and other species which depending on eating cod were at risk.

The work of marine biologists helped the cod population transition from being an endangered species, to one that is vulnerable, but no longer in imminent danger.

Marine biologists are crucial to conservation efforts through their research and expertise on marine life and collaboration with individuals in other fields including policymakers and social scientists. Their work may include advising governments where and when to set quotas that allow for humans to make a living without putting aquatic ecosystems at risk.

Occupational Classification

Individuals employed as Sustainability Consultants may be classified in one or more of the following occupational groupings:

NOC Code: 2121Biologists and Related Scientists

NOC Code: 2221Biological Technologists and Technicians

What is a NOC Code?

The National Occupation Classification (NOC) provides a standardized language for describing the work performed by Canadians in the labour market. It gives statisticians, labour market analysts, career counsellors, employers and individual job seekers a consistent way to collect data, describe and understand the nature of work within different occupations.

The NOC is developed and updated in partnership with Statistics Canada to coincide with the 5- year census cycles. It is based on in-depth occupational research and consultations conducted across Canada, to reflect changes in the Canadian labour market.

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