Community Engagement in the National Marine Sanctuaries - PART 2: Citizen Science

By Megan Howes

April 2017

In Part 1, we explored the many ways that volunteers contribute to marine stewardship across the sanctuary system. Read on to learn about citizen science, a central and valuable component of our volunteer programs.

a student collects a water sample in a test tube
High school citizen scientists conduct water quality monitoring. Photo: Alhassan Omar

Did you know you don't have to be a trained scientist to contribute to the understanding of our ocean and Great Lakes?

Citizen science provides integral support for many national marine sanctuary projects. Across the National Marine Sanctuary System, citizen scientists actively participate in various facets of marine conservation, including collecting data to assess the health of shoreline ecosystems, and monitoring marine wildlife. There are opportunities for diverse interests and skills, and this brigade of community members makes our conservation work possible.  

students examine the rocky intertidal ecosystem
High school citizen scientists study the rocky intertidal ecosystem at Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Jessie Altstatt/NOAA

Citizen scientists and all sanctuary volunteers provide an essential link to the general public and are an invaluable aspect of sanctuary operations. The time and effort contributed by citizen scientists provides significant and quantifiable socioeconomic benefits to further the reach and impact of sanctuary projects. In 2016, the combined effort put in by over 8,600 volunteer citizen scientists across the National Marine Sanctuary System provided an economic value of $1.9 million dollars, or the equivalent of about 40 full-time employees.

At Greater Farallones and Monterey Bay national marine sanctuaries, volunteers for Beach Watch, an ongoing monthly ecosystem assessment, have been steadily collecting data for more than two decades, monitoring coastal wildlife and human activity around these protected areas. The team of dedicated citizen scientists have been constructing a baseline that helps to detect and respond to environmental change around the central California coast.

Monthly shoreline monitoring has made the Beach Watch team expert surveyors, and the long-term dataset has helped Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary address numerous management issues. Many Beach Watch volunteers worked alongside sanctuary staff as on-the-ground responders in the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay. Volunteers regularly conduct oil spill sampling and tarball retrieval to assist the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response to detect and analyze the source of oil on coastal beaches. Data from Beach Watch have also been used to secure more than $52 million in restoration funds to increase protection of natural resources and enhance lost recreational uses along the central and northern California coasts. Volunteer citizen science programs like Beach Watch foster community resilience by developing a reservoir of local environmental expertise.

Beach Watch volunteers looking through binoculars to the sea
Beach Watch volunteers gather for a training session on the Sonoma coast. Beach Watch trains citizen scientists to survey and document the resources of Greater Farallones and Monterey Bay national marine sanctuaries. Photo: NOAA

Farther down the coast in Monterey Bay, "Snapshot Day" occurs each spring. On the first Saturday in May, a fleet of volunteers are trained and tasked with taking samples and various water quality measurements around the local watersheds that drain into Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. This yearly “snapshot” of data (which includes metrics such as pH, dissolved oxygen, and nutrient levels) provides the community with a tangible connection between the health of rivers and tributaries in their backyards to the impacts on the ocean downstream. A day spent outside with friends and neighbors collecting water quality measurements makes science in sanctuaries more visible and accessible for community members, and promotes local ownership of both problems and solutions.

two snapshot day volunteers check water clarity using a transparency tube
Snapshot Day volunteers check water clarity using a transparency tube. Photo: R. Clark

Many citizen science projects at sanctuaries occur in partnership with other organizations. In the Northeast, at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards Program is a team of citizen scientists who monitor the more than 50 species of seabirds found on Cape Cod Bay throughout the year. Novice and expert birders alike join staff from Mass Audubon aboard a NOAA research vessel. Volunteers who are bird identification experts act as observers, while those who are not as familiar with each species learn the ropes as data recorders. Data collected on these cruises are used to study relative abundance and distribution of seabirds over time throughout the sanctuary. Seabirds are indicators of ecosystem health, so tracking Stellwagen Bank's seabird populations helps inform management decisions.

There are also valuable opportunities for students to take an active role in stewardship through science. The LiMPETS (Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students) program in California allows thousands of aspiring ocean scientists each year to monitor rocky intertidal and sandy beach ecosystems. For 15 years, at 60 sites covering over 600 miles of California coastline, LiMPETS teachers and high school students have established a baseline dataset to evaluate health of ecosystems and detect changes over time. Data have contributed to projects like the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary condition report. The program aims to inspire the next generation to understand, value, and participate in science. It also raises awareness among young people of the National Marine Sanctuary System and the importance of place-based conservation.

volunteers on a boat counting seabirds
Expert and novice birders alike can help monitor seabird populations through the Stellwagen Seabird Stewards Program. Photo: Evelyn Ganson, NOAA

You don't need a biology degree to contribute to our scientific understanding of special ocean and Great Lakes ecosystems. Whether you're involved once a week or once a year, you can contribute meaningful information to inform sanctuary management, and explore your national marine sanctuaries while gaining scientific skills. The National Marine Sanctuary System works at a national level because of local community engagement and dedicated support -- we depend on enthusiastic, dedicated citizen scientists like you to help protect sanctuary ecosystems.

To explore the many rewarding citizen science opportunities at your national marine sanctuaries, click here or contact Claire Fackler, national volunteer coordinator at the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Megan Howes is the constituent and legislative affairs intern for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.