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Getting your toes wet: Citizen science as a means for long-term monitoring

Citation: Gouraguine A, Moranta J, Ruiz-Frau A, Hinz H, Reñones O, Ferse SCA, et al. (2019) Citizen science in data and resource-limited areas: A tool to detect long-term ecosystem changes. PLoS ONE 14(1): e0210007. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210007

Note: This post was originally published on the Oceanbites site in January 2019; however, it was lost due to server issues.

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science is kind of what it sounds like—public participation in scientific research. Volunteers help with research in various ways, such as counting organisms or being an extra set of hands for field work. Citizen scientists play an essential role in performing research where limited funding may otherwise prevent research from getting done. In regions where data may be unavailable due to a lack of funding, volunteers can help collect important data to inform stakeholders and policy makers on local community concerns, such as decreased fish population. These efforts help produce data where no other information exists. Therefore, citizen scientists play a critical role in global datasets to inform scientists how an ecosystem may change over time.

Different examples of how to be a citizen scientist in the marine environment. Image credit: NOAA

The Study

Researchers used citizen scientists in Southeast Indonesia to help them observe long-term coral reef ecosystem changes. Coral reefs are essential to the marine environment because they provide key ecosystem services, such as shoreline protection, fisheries, and tourism to boost the local economy.  A huge threat to coral reefs is an increase in sea surface temperature (SST), one of the side effects of global warming. With the help of citizen scientists, researchers studied how different types of coral reef cover (hard or soft coral) affects fish communities around the islands of Hoga and Kaledupa, within Wakatobi National Park. The locals in this region rely on marine resources for food and this often leads to overfishing. Thus the researchers wanted to understand potential long-term changes to the ecosystem from both increased SST and overfishing.

Citizen scientists collecting data via snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. Photo credit: Tracy Olive

Volunteers as Citizen Scientists & Training Protocol

Citizen science programs come in many different forms from mass participation (anyone can get involved anywhere) to systemic monitoring (require training and participation at pre-selected locations). The volunteers who helped with the citizen science aspect of this study mainly consisted of university students who were responsible for all of the costs of their participation in the program. Systemic monitoring, like the type of program carried out on the reefs in Indonesia, is often organized by personal contact or by email, so it is possible that the University students who participated in Indonesia were made aware of the program via external communication. You may wonder how the volunteers knew how to carry out such specific scientific research. Over the span of the 10 year study, about 275 volunteers were trained by experienced researchers. To participate in the research, volunteers had to become certified in scuba diving (if they hadn’t done so already). They then attended a 1 week reef ecology course to learn how to identify the different categories of potential cover, whether biotic (hard or soft coral; macro algae) or abiotic (sand; rubble; rock) and fish species. To develop a citizen science program for long-term monitoring, there is a considerable amount of effort required by scientists to train volunteers. In this study, scientists performed cross-checks to verify that volunteers correctly identified organisms and once the volunteers were adequately trained, the experienced scientists could take a step back and let the volunteers carry out the research.

What about data quality?

There is some concern that citizen science programs may not produce high quality data; however, researchers in this study argue that the data collected were, for the most part, of consistent quality. The only variability within the data came from the fish data because there are many different kinds of fish that live in this region, and they can be difficult to correctly identify and count. In addition, the researchers add that the fish data were collected by many different observers, who may have different experience levels. Lastly, fish only seen in one region within the study site or ones that did not appear in previous or past years were removed because of the possibility that they had been falsely identified.

Results from Citizen Scientists

Volunteers in this study contributed important data to understand long-term coral reef changes in Southeast Indonesia. Overall, there was a decline of 69.3% in average hard coral cover and an abiotic cover increase from 19% in 2002 to 63.4% in 2012. Over the 10 year study period, there were significant negative effects of decreasing hard coral cover on fish abundance and species richness. However, the researchers point out that bomb fishing (blast fishing) and increased human consumption of fish could have also changed the community composition of fish species within the region. The fish families most affected by a loss of hard coral cover were smaller fish that rely on hard coral for protection. Other fish families benefitted from hard coral cover loss because they feed on loose sediment and decreased hard coral cover indicates that there is more room for abiotic cover, such as sediment.

Student interns developing a citizen scientist program for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team program. Photo credit: University of Washington

Future of Citizen Science?

The results of this research highlight the importance of citizen science programs to detect long-term ecosystem change. In this study, volunteers observed a substantial change in benthic habitat over 10 years and produced data to inform policy makers that most likely would not have been available otherwise due to lack of funding. Citizen science programs are not only a cost-effective way to collect data over many years which can then be used to inform better management, but they also encourage environmental stewardship and science literacy. The authors conclude that there is an unexplored potential of citizen science programs in developing nations where long-term data collection may not be possible due to government agencies being unprepared to perform long-term monitoring. Keep your eyes out for citizen science projects! They can be a fun and educational way to get involved with science.


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