Citizen Science: Facilitating Ocean Stewardship and Enabling Widespread Monitoring of Marine Ecosystems

Written by Abigail Engleman

Citizen scientist  n.  a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions; an amateur scientist.

Figure 1: “Wildbook for Whale Sharks” is an online citizen science reporting tool that allows participants to upload images of whale sharks, which are then identified based on their unique spotted patterns (https://www.whaleshark.org/). [Photo by Sebastian Pena Lambarri]

Citizen Science, although not officially defined by the Oxford English Dictionary until 2012, has long been a part of scientific practice. Technological advancements in recent decades, however, have facilitated information exchange, making it easier than ever to involve people in research, regardless of their occupational background. 

For marine ecosystems, which are vast and variable, citizen science has tremendous potential to enhance monitoring efforts and improve our understanding of marine systems across various spatial and temporal scales.


Figure 2: Volunteers participate in a beach cleanup effort to remove trash and debris from a local beach. [Photo by Brian Yurasits]

Types of Citizen Science

Not all citizen science is created equal. Overarching goals and level of citizen involvement vary drastically between projects. For the most part, citizen science projects fall into one of five categories (Wiggins & Crowston, 2011):

  • Action Projects: volunteer projects that encourage local participation to address issues relevant to a region or community.
  • Conservation Projects: inspiring citizen stewardship of natural resources to enhance outreach and scope of management goals.  
  • Investigation Projects: employing citizen involvement in collecting data applicable to answering scientific research questions.
  • Virtual Project: virtual-based projects that utilize citizen participation in research but have no physical element of participation.
  • Education Projects: promote ocean stewardship through both formal and informal outreach and educational opportunities.


Figure 3: Uploading images of marine species for population tracking and monitoring is a common and easy way to participate in citizen science. [Photo by Luke Porter]

Benefits of Citizen Science in Research

Scientists, alone, can only do so much. Enlisting citizen scientists in research, conservation, and management projects, broadens the scope of such efforts by getting more ‘hands on deck’. With more people working towards a scientific goal, citizen science projects often amass extensive data. Despite initial concerns over the use of ‘amateur scientists’ in data collection, citizen-collected data continues to gain popularity, validity, and support as a research tool. Moving research out from behind the curtains and allowing non-scientists to participate also generates support for the conservation and management initiatives these projects aim to advance.

Signs of Success

Big, unstructured data resulting from citizen science projects may not be applicable to all research questions, but remain a key component needed to discover trends and draw fundamental conclusions about our oceans. Citizen-collected data has been particularly useful in species sighting/monitoring projects, in which conservationists cannot monitor everywhere at once. These projects typically involve citizens reporting or uploading images of species and/or environmental information, to track individuals and populations.

An Australian citizen science tool employs citizen participation to detect presence of crown-of-thorns starfish (Dumas et al., 2020), a devastating corallivorous invertebrate wreaking havoc across the Great Barrier Reef. Citizen scientists contributed over 640 observations to the database, recording 38,000 total crown-of-thorns between 2014 and 2018. The collaborative effort helped researchers and managers identify reef risks and prioritize follow-up reef surveys and crown-of-thorn removal (Dumas et al., 2020).

Citizen reporting tools allow stakeholders to monitor species and systems in real time, revealing important trends and facilitating management. In 2016, an online reporting tool helped researchers monitoring coral bleaching throughout the Western Indian Ocean (Gudka et al., 2020). The reporting tool received 698 entrees that helped researchers assess trends in bleaching distribution and mortality. The information collected in this study, though basic, was highly important for detecting regional variation and trends in coral bleaching (Gudka et al., 2020).

Find Your #CitSci

There are numerous ways to participate in citizen science research, regardless of your interests or desired level of commitment. Take a look at the extensive list compiled by Earp and Liconti (2019), featuring nearly 120 marine citizen science groups (Table 1).

Are you already participating in scientific research? Perhaps one of these organizations has data that would be of value in your own research! 

Table 1: Comprehensive list of nearly 120 citizen science projects and organizations published by Earp and Liconti (2019). 

MARINE CITIZEN SCIENCE PROJECTWEBSITE
Angling Project: Off The Hookwww.sharktrust.org/en/anglers_recording_project
B.C. Cetacean Sightings Networkwww.wildwhales.org
Basking Shark Projectwww.sharktrust.org/en/basking_shark_project
Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication & Health (BEACH)www.ecology.wa.gov/Water-Shorelines/Water-quality/Saltwater/BEACH-program
Beach Watchwww.beachwatch.farallones.org
BeachObserverwww.beachobserver.com
Big Seaweed Searchwww.bigseaweedsearch.org
Biscayne Bay Drift Card Studywww.carthe.org/baydrift
Bleach Patrolwww.ldeo.columbia.edu/bleachpatrol
Blue Water Task Forcewww.surfrider.org/blue-water-task-force
Cape Radd Citizen Science Daywww.caperadd.com/courses/citizen-science-day
Capturing our Coastwww.capturingourcoast.co.uk
CARIB Tailswww.caribtails.org/home.html
Caribbean Lionfish Response Programwww.corevi.org
Chesapeake Bay Parasite Projectwww.serc.si.edu/citizen-science/projects/chesapeake-bay-parasite-project
Clean Sea LIFEcleansealife.it
Coastal Observation & Seabird Survey Team (COASST)www.depts.washington.edu/coasst
Coastal Ocean Mammal & Bird Education & Research Surveys (Beach COMBERS)www.mlml.calstate.edu/beachcombers
Community Seagrass Initiativewww.csi-seagrass.co.uk
Coral Reef Monitoring Data Portalwww.monitoring.coral.org
CoralWatchwww.coralwatch.org
Crab Watchwww.seachangeproject.eu/seachange-about-4/crab-watch
Delaware Bay Horseshoe Crab Spawning Surveywww.dnrec.alpha.delaware.gov/coastal-programs/education-outreach/horseshoe-crab-survey
Delaware Shorebird Projectwww.dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/Shorebirds
Digital Fisherswww.oceannetworks.ca/learning/get-involved/citizen-science/digital-fishers
divers4oceanographywww.divers4oceanography.org
Earthdivewww.earthdive.com
eOceanswww.eoceans.co
Fish Watcherswww.fishbase.org/fishwatcher/menu.php
FjordPhytowww.fjordphyto.wordpress.com
Floating Forestswww.zooniverse.org/projects/zooniverse/floating-forests
Follow & Learn About the Ocean & Wetland (FLOW)www.amigosdebolsachica.org/flow.php
Global Microplastics Initiativewww.adventurescientists.org/microplastic
Gotham Whalewww.gothamwhale.org/citizen-science
Grunion Greeterswww.grunion.org
Happywhalewww.happywhale.com
Horseshoe crabs as homeswww.sites.google.com/site/epibiont
IHO Crowdsourced Bathymetrywww.ngdc.noaa.gov/iho/#csb
iNaturalistwww.inaturalist.org
Invader IDwww.zooniverse.org/projects/serc/invader-id
iSeahorsewww.iseahorse.org
JellyWatchwww.jellywatch.org
Kelp Watchwww.serc.si.edu/citizen-science/projects/kelp-watch
Long-term Monitoring Program & Experimental Training for Students (LiMPETS)www.limpets.org
Manatee Chatwww.zooniverse.org/projects/cetalingua/manatee-chat
MangroveWatchwww.mangrovewatch.org.au
Manta Matcherwww.mantamatcher.org/overview.jsp
Marine Debris Monitoring & Assessment Projectwww.marinedebris.noaa.gov/research/monitoring-toolbox
Marine Debris Trackerwww.marinedebris.engr.uga.edu
Marine Metre Squared (Mm2)www.mm2.net.nz
MCS Wild Bottle Sightingswww.mcsuk.org/bottlesightings
Mitten Crab Watchwww.mittencrabs.org.uk
Monitor Tupinambáswww.zooniverse.org/projects/larissakawabe/monitore-tupinambas
New England Basking Shark & Ocean Sunfish Projectwww.nebshark.org
New York Horseshoe Crab Monitoring Networkwww.nyhorseshoecrab.org
North Atlantic Right Whale Sightings Advisory Systemwww.nefsc.noaa.gov/psb/surveys/SAS.html
Ocean Sampling Daywww.microb3.eu/osd.html
Orcasoundwww.orcasound.net
OSPAR Beach Litterwww.ospar.org/work-areas/eiha/marine-litter/beach-litter
Our Radioactive Oceanwww.ourradioactiveocean.org
Oyster Drills in Richardson Baywww.serc.si.edu/citizen-science/projects/oyster-drill
Penguin Camwww.penguinscience.com/education/count_the_penguins.php
Penguin Watchwww.penguinwatch.org
Plankton Portalwww.planktonportal.org
PlateWatchwww.platewatch.nisbase.org
Puget Sound Seabird Survey (PSSS)www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/About/Science/CitizenScience/PugetSoundSeabirdSurvey.aspx
Redmapwww.redmap.org.au
Reef Check Californiawww.reefcheck.org/california/ca-overview
Reef Check Mediterranean Seawww.reefcheckmed.org
Reef Check Tropicalwww.reefcheck.org
Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF)www.reef.org
Reef Life Surveywww.reeflifesurvey.com/reef-life-survey
Reef Watchwww.conservationsa.org.au/reef_watch
Rescue a Reefwww.sharkresearch.rsmas.miami.edu/donate/rescue-a-reef
Satellites Over Seals (SOS)www.tomnod.com
Scuba Tourism For The Environmentwww.steproject.org
Sea Star Wasting Diseasewww.udiscover.it/applications/seastar
Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET)www.seanetters.wordpress.com
Seabirdwatchwww.zooniverse.org/projects/penguintom79/seabirdwatch
Seagrass Spotterwww.seagrassspotter.org
Seagrass Watchwww.seagrasswatch.org
Sealife Surveywww.mba.ac.uk/recording/about
Seasearchwww.seasearch.org.uk
seaturtle.orgwww.seaturtle.org
Seawatch Submit a Sightingwww.seawatchfoundation.org.uk
Send us your skeletonswww.fish.wa.gov.au/Fishing-and-Aquaculture/Recreational-Fishing/Send-Us-Your-Skeletons/Pages
Sevengill Shark Identification Projectwww.sevengillsharksightings.org
SharkBasewww.shark-base.org
Sharkscountwww.sharksavers.org/en/our-programs/sharkscount
Smartfinwww.surfrider.org/programs/smartfin
Snapshots at Seawww.zooniverse.org/projects/tedcheese/snapshots-at-sea
South Africa Elasmobranch Monitoring (ELMO)www.elmoafrica.org
SubseaObserverswww.subseaobservers.com
Tag A Tinywww.umb.edu/tunalab/tagatiny
Tangaroa Bluewww.tangaroablue.org
TBF Tag & Release Programwww.billfish.org/research/tag-and-release
The Big Sea Surveywww.hlf.org.uk/our-projects/big-sea-survey
The Florida Keys BleachWatch Programwww.mote.org/research/program/coral-reef-science-monitoring/bleachwatch
The Great Eggcase Hunt Projectwww.sharktrust.org/en/great_eggcase_hunt
The Great Nurdle Huntwww.nurdlehunt.org.uk
The Plastic Tidewww.theplastictide.com
The Secchi Disk studywww.secchidisk.org
The Shore Thingwww.mba.ac.uk/shore_thing
The Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS)www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/webs
TLC Juvenile Lobster Monitoring Programwww.lobsters.org/volunt/volunteer.html
trackmyfishtrackmy.fish
Wakame Watchwakamewatch.org.uk
WDC Shorewatch Programmewww.wdcs.org/national_regions/scotland/shorewatch
Weddell Seal Countwww.zooniverse.org/projects/slg0808/weddell-seal-count
Whale FMwhale.fm
Whale mAPPwww.whalemapp.org
Whale Trackwhaletrack.hwdt.org
Whales as Individualswww.zooniverse.org/projects/tedcheese/whales-as-individuals
Wildbook for Whale Sharkswww.whaleshark.org

References

Dumas, P., Fiat, S., Durbano, A. et al. (2020) Citizen science, a promising tool for detecting and monitoring outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster spp.. Scientific Reports 10(291): 1-10. DOI:10.1038/s41598-019-57251-8.

Earp H.S., Liconti A. (2020) Science for the future: The use of citizen science in marine research and conservation. In: Jungblut S., Liebich V., Bode-Dalby M. (eds) YOUMARES 9 – The Oceans: Our Research, Our Future. Springer, Cham. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-20389-4_1

Gudka, M., Obura, D., Mbugua, J. et al. (2020) Participatory reporting of the 2016 bleaching event in the Western Indian Ocean. Coral Reefs 39:1-11. DOI:10.1007/s00338-019-01851-3.

Wiggins A. & Crowston K. (2011) From conservation to crowdsourcing: A typology of citizen science. 2011 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 1-10. DOI: 10.1109/HICSS.2011.207.

3 thoughts on “Citizen Science: Facilitating Ocean Stewardship and Enabling Widespread Monitoring of Marine Ecosystems

  1. Great article! Citizen science is so important (& also fun!) and this is an awesome list of projects. Bonefish & Tarpon Trust also has a great citizen science program for those in Florida: https://www.bonefishtarpontrust.org/conservation/research/projects/juvenile-tarpon-habitat-mapping/

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I for all time emailed this weblog post page to all my friends, for the
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    Like

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