Citizen science volunteers devote valuable time and data to national marine sanctuaries

By Claire Fackler

April 2019

A volunteer stands on the front deck of a whale watching vessel and captures the perfect photograph of a blue whale tail fluke to send to the Cascadia Research Collective. Another volunteer standing next to her logs the whale species and their behavior into the Spotter Pro app, which also locks in the GPS coordinates of the marine mammal sighting. In between sightings during this four-hour whale watching excursion, these volunteers walk around the vessel sharing knowledge of the natural history of the Santa Barbara Channel and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and National Park and answer questions from residents and visitors.

a person looking through binoculars
A Channel Islands Naturalist Corps member participates in photo identification work as a citizen scientist aboard a whale watching vessel. Photo courtesy of Kevin Bailey

These particular volunteers are members of the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps – just one of the many citizen science programs that takes place throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System. Volunteers are trained to conduct citizen science on marine mammal field identification and general research. The data they collect are used in near real-time to help understand the population dynamics of these endangered marine mammals in the Santa Barbara Channel. The data also support NOAA and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s efforts to reduce the risk of ship strikes (where container ships accidentally hit large whales), since the data document the travel patterns of large whales in the Santa Barbara Channel on a yearly basis. This program is an example of how just a couple of citizen scientists’ volunteering efforts can contribute to resource protection and monitoring.

National marine sanctuaries are living laboratories where volunteers can get involved to ensure these underwater parks are protected now and for future generations. Our citizen science volunteers get the opportunity to learn from world-renowned scientists, gain experience communicating the importance of our natural world to visitors, and join a community of people with science interests.

In 2018, more than 9,300 volunteers supported citizen science efforts in national marine sanctuaries, including Beach Watch, Spotter Pro, and Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards. These volunteers contributed 82,637 hours, which is equivalent to $2 million of in-kind support. They enabled national marine sanctuaries to accomplish the work of an additional 41 full-time employees. Read on for some snapshots of these citizen science projects.

Channel Islands Naturalist Corps

Specially-trained volunteers educate passengers on board whale watch vessels visiting Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Park. These volunteers also lead island hikes within the national park, participate in numerous local outreach events, and conduct citizen science on marine mammal field identification and general research. Throughout fiscal year 2018, 156 devoted volunteers contributed the most hours of any citizen science program in the National Marine Sanctuary System with 32,800 hours, which is the equivalent of more than $809,000.

Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students (LiMPETS)

LiMPETS is a citizen science program that monitors the coastal ecosystems of California and helps youth develop a scientific understanding of the ocean. Teachers, students, and volunteer groups along the coast of California collect rocky intertidal and sandy beach data in the name of science and to help protect our local marine ecosystems. During the 2017-2018 school year, 6,615 teachers and students conducted science through these authentic, hands-on coastal monitoring experiences. This effort collects long-term data to help resource managers assess the status and trends of these coastal ecosystems.

two students conducting monitoring on a beach
High school students monitor the rocky intertidal as part of the LiMPETS network. Photo: Jessie Altstatt/NOAA

Beach Watch

Beach Watch is a long-term ecosystem monitoring program conducted by Greater Farallones scientists, assisted by dedicated volunteers who survey an assigned beach semi-monthly within Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in California. These citizen scientists collect data on live and dead species of birds and marine mammals, as well as human activities. In fiscal year 2018 – the program’s 25th anniversary – 206 dedicated volunteers worked over 12,000 hours. Their efforts helped scientists answer real-world questions by contributing to a data set that documents the biological and physical changes of their stretch of beach.

person documenting a dead bird
A citizen scientist documents a dead bird on her stretch of beach that she monitors monthly as a Beach Watch volunteer. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Sanctuary Ocean Count

The Sanctuary Ocean Count project takes place in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and offers a chance to monitor humpback whales from the shores of O`ahu, Hawai`i, Maui, and Kaua`i. Not only has this project proven to be a fun volunteer citizen science activity for residents and visitors, it also helps provide important information to researchers on humpback whales around the Hawaiian Islands. During single-day events in January, February, and March 2018, over 1,700 people grabbed binoculars and a clipboard while posted along one of many coastal sites to monitor the water for signs of humpback whale activity. The data collected on humpback whale sightings and the animal’s surface behaviors supplement scientific information gathered from other research activities.

person looking through binoculars next to a sanctuary ocean count sign
A Sanctuary Ocean Count volunteer with Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary monitors sightings and activities of humpback whales. Photo: Cindy Among-Serrao/NOAA

Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards

Birders from beginners to experts help collect data on migratory seabirds in the Northeast with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The citizen science data collected by Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards are used to compare the relative abundance of seabirds over time. This information helps researchers understand seabird populations within the sanctuary and their possible impacts on local ecosystems. Seabird data also act as a proxy to help researchers detect changes in the environment and may help us monitor other populations, such as humpback whales and sand lance.

In 2018, 61 steadfast volunteers joined sanctuary staff and partner Mass Audubon in the project, devoting 6,488 hours to record 40,000 sightings of birds, other wildlife, vessels, and marine debris, for a total of more than 250,000 sightings since the 2011 pilot. These valuable data are being used by NOAA, the Atlantic Marine Bird Consortium, Mass Audubon, and others.

The seabird stewards data have been incorporated into the sanctuary's condition report to help determine sanctuary biodiversity, species richness, state of the birds, and future trends. Last year, Mass Audubon honored the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary team as “heroes” for the Seabird Stewards program and more in the 2017 State of the Birds report.

people on a boat wearing heavy coats and looking through binoculars
Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards are a hearty group of dedicated citizen science volunteers who face extremely cold weather to collect valuable data on migratory seabirds. Photo: Anne-Marie Runfola/NOAA

Volunteers help protect underwater treasures now and for future generations

Citizen scientists make a huge impact for the National Marine Sanctuary System, and these intrepid individuals are just part of the broader sanctuary volunteer force. In total, this year 12,310 volunteers around the United States helped to protect and conserve America's underwater treasures to safeguard them now and for future generations. These individuals worked 127,983 hours over the 2018 fiscal year in a wide variety of activities including beach cleanups, visitor center volunteering, and wildlife monitoring. Their work is the equivalent of $3.16 million of in-kind support, or the value and time of 64 full-time employees. Learn how you can get involved.

Claire Fackler is the national volunteer coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.