Here’s how non-scientists can help protect marine life

This post is part of a semester-long collaboration with Dr. Michèle LaVigne, a professor at Bowdoin College, who partnered with oceanbites authors to incorporate science communication into her Oceanography classes. This is a guest post co-authored by two of her Oceanography students, Katelyn Cox and Tashi Brundige.

Freiwald, J, Meyer, R, Caselle, JE, et al. Citizen science monitoring of marine protected areas: Case studies and recommendations for integration into monitoring programs. Mar Ecol. 2018; 39:e12470.

Have you ever wanted to help do marine science research? Marine protected areas could use your help!

Marine Protected Areas

A Marine Protected Area is similar to wilderness areas or national parks, except that it aims to protect an underwater ecosystem. It is important to monitor marine protected areas to see whether they are successfully preserving the health of sea life, such as sea urchins, starfish, reef-dwelling fish, and shellfish. This monitoring helps ensure the seafood on your dinner table is sustainably harvested and will be available to catch and eat for years to come. Collaboration between scientists and volunteers is increasingly important to these efforts as these marine protected areas cover a wide extent of ocean. For instance, Southern California marine protected areas account for around 356 square miles, an area that is slightly larger than San Diego. If we consider all marine protected areas around the United States, the area quickly becomes difficult to manage by even a large group of scientists and volunteers. So when it comes to monitoring marine protected areas, the more the merrier!

A group of scientists in California recently explored the value of involving everyday citizens in the monitoring of marine protected areas – a concept known as citizen science – in California’s South Coast Study Region. They highlighted a few case studies that involve a diverse group of scientists, fishermen, interested citizens, and students working towards one common goal: to assess the health of marine ecosystems protected by California’s Marine Life Protection Act. These assessments help scientists understand what species are at the highest risk with changing climate conditions. They also inform policymakers who create certain regulations that protect key endangered species. Monitoring large areas like these coastal ecosystems can be a huge undertaking, so scientists are looking for engaged citizens to help.

Case Studies Involving Fishermen, Volunteers, and Students

Citizen volunteers and lobstermen helped scientists study spiny lobsters (pictured) in California. Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

One case study involved monitoring spiny lobster health off the California South Coast. For three years, a crew of scientists worked with lobstermen who provided equipment and tremendous ecological knowledge about the species, as well as with citizen volunteers who provided extra hands. The team caught lobsters, recorded their size, sex, and reproductive status, and then tagged and released them.  Citizen volunteers were trained how to record all that data, allowing the team of researchers and volunteers to work faster and more efficiently.

Why did lobstermen agree to give up part of their busy workday to help researchers? Because they wanted their local lobster populations to thrive! By helping scientists monitor spiny lobster health, lobstermen learn how data is collected. This data then impacts local fishing regulations, which the lobstermen must follow. Participating in the monitoring process allows lobstermen to advocate for good fishing practices while ensuring their own future employment.

Overfishing and changing climate conditions are growing concerns, so it is important to establish similar monitoring studies elsewhere to ensure sustainable fishing practices in other parts of the world. It is expected that citizen volunteers will play an important monitoring role in other parts of the world as many of the marine protected areas are large and difficult to manage for scientists alone.

Another example outlined in this study was called the Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students. LiMPETS is a hands-on program for 7th-12th graders to go out and collect data on field trips at 68 sites in the state of California about coastal wildlife. Their data is then uploaded to a public database.

This study found that their data collection practices, built for easy use by younger students, left some holes in the monitoring protocol that scientists would need to fill in. However, modifications to the LiMPETS program are underway. Such programs expose students to field science and connect them to the environment, encouraging them to care about its protection – and maybe even to become scientists themselves!

How can you help?

You may be wondering what qualifications citizens need before volunteering to help. Not many! If volunteers are organized and can successfully follow directions, their help is valuable in the data collection process as all necessary training is provided before volunteers start.

Non-scientists are often invaluable in helping with field research. Image by Cara_VSAngel licensed under CC

So why is the potential of citizen science something to pay attention to? Involving non-scientists in monitoring and research gives the public a greater connection to the issues at stake. Opening up the field of scientific research also makes it possible for people who are interested in science and data collection to expand their skills and get hands-on experience.

But it’s not just non-scientists who benefit from this experience. When many people with diverse skills and backgrounds contribute to data collection, scientists do more thorough research and learn how to better communicate their research to non-scientists. This also creates important “buy-in” from stakeholders like fishermen and voting citizens whose involvement could determine the fate of protected areas. Scientists need people who are interested in their work too!

Want to learn more about citizen science opportunities around you? Visit this site [] to find projects that are looking for volunteer citizen scientists near you. Regardless how close you are to the ocean, scientists are currently looking for citizen volunteers for a variety of research topics. So chances are, there is a citizen science opportunity near you!

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