Sleuthing for the sea: Beach Watch citizen science program celebrates 25 years

By Mary Jane Schramm

October 2018

Ignoring the sun glancing off the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, the scientist peered into the computer, intent on the latest entries from her field team of coastal surveyors. She scanned for scientific “treasure” — any notable changes in the wildlife, or telltale sticky tar balls; even unusual quantities of marine debris. All these bits of information reveal something noteworthy, or confirm that everything is as expected. Combined, they reflect the condition of the coast and the open ocean, far beyond.

This scientist is a key player in Beach Watch, an award-winning research initiative of NOAA’s Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. October 2018 marks the program’s 25th anniversary.

people gathered around a presenter holding a bird on a beach
Beach Watch manager Kirsten Lindquist (at right, holding bird) demonstrates surveying techniques to volunteers. Photo: NOAA

San Francisco-based Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary protects nearly 3,300 square miles of north-central California coastal and offshore waters, a prime feeding destination and migration corridor for whales, white sharks, seals and sea lions, seabirds, and other marine life. It is a diverse ecosystem of global importance that warrants close observation, since accidents, disruptions, and other events may have repercussions far beyond its boundaries.

Coastal monitoring work would ordinarily require a staff far greater than what budgets permit, but as the NOAA National Ocean Service’s flagship formal volunteer program, Beach Watch has involved the public in that effort. Under the management of the non-profit Greater Farallones Association, volunteers are trained to work with scientists to keep a watchful eye on this incredible ecosystem.

person on a beach
A Beach Watch volunteer conducts a regular beach survey. Photo: NOAA

A call to action

a person preparing an oiled seabird
Oiled seabirds receive special handling so they can be used as as evidence in court after a spill. Photo: Greater Farallones Association

In 1993, following a series of disastrous oil spills, sanctuary biologists recognized the need for baseline information on coastal birds, mammals, and human activities that might affect them. Without knowing the animals’ normal abundance and locations where they would typically be found, it was difficult to determine how they were impacted by spills. Seabirds are excellent indicators of ecosystem health; because their prey is often far offshore and beneath the waves, their presence and condition, or their absence, help researchers to track what’s happening in the region on the whole.

At the request of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, in order to build an effective volunteer force, Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary research coordinator Jan Roletto worked with colleagues to recruit, train, and supervise a team of citizen scientists to meticulously record conditions along our coast. These citizen scientists walk the same stretch of beach each month, recording all they see. Their long-term data ultimately help inform scientists and resource managers when unusual events occur. These data also provide evidence of impacts from ocean warming and damage from vessel groundings, and aid early detection of emerging issues such as oil deposition and marine debris.

Shore patrol

Beach Watch surveyors record counts of living and dead birds and marine mammals along the beach. They note human activities and the number of visitors, including dogs, swimmers, divers, surfers, and fisherfolk, on and near shore.

Roletto notes, "This information has proven invaluable. Documenting dead animals establishes baseline mortality rates and trends, which, when compared with rates during a human-caused disaster like an oil spill or hazardous materials event, quantifies damage. These data help to identify what the impacts of an oil spill or other disaster may be, and the estimated time it will take to restore injured wildlife and habitats.”

Roletto also points out that keeping counts of where birds and mammals are found helps resource managers to direct protection efforts. Similarly, knowing where there are large number of beachgoers may help the sanctuary anticipate impacts to wildlife, and assess the effectiveness of management actions.

two people standing on a beach near dead birds
Beach Watch volunteers document seabird starvation victims of a warm water event. Photo: Beach Watch/NOAA

Baseline surveys have alerted sanctuary managers and other authorities to “unusual mortality events” – simultaneous die-offs of large numbers of seabirds or marine mammals. Beach Watch documented the massive starvation-related seabird mortality during the 2014-2015 ocean warming incident along the California coast.

Surveyors utilize special forensics training and equipment to document oil pollution and methodically gather samples as evidence that could trace their origin and determine responsibility for the event – a “CSI” for the ocean.

Each survey includes photos to document changes over time. Interannual coastal erosion and sand deposition pattern data provide scientists, engineers, and managers with tools that help coastal communities adapt to shifting shorelines.

Entry by entry, the information is folded into the sanctuary’s growing database, and correlated with the sanctuary’s at-sea observations and our partners’ research on population dynamics of birds, mammals, and their prey. Beach Watch data are further combined with offshore environmental data from NOAA buoys and other ocean observing systems. Ultimately, they are shared with resource managers and the scientific community, including biologists and climatologists worldwide. And it all started with sanctuary scientists recruiting and training volunteers to be skilled coastal monitoring specialists.

Occasionally, what the sea casts up provokes awe and amazement: an exotic masked booby, a striped dolphin – displaced creatures of the tropics. “Visitations,” like swarms of red pelagic crabs or tropical pyrosomes – thumb-sized gelatinous invertebrates – may blanket miles of shoreline. Beach Watch surveyors, as experts on specific beaches, are often among the first to report these strange phenomena. They may also be among the first responders during oil spills and other environmentally destructive events.

shorebirds on the beach
Beach Watch volunteers collect data on the presence of wildlife like these marbled godwits and long-billed curlews. Photo: Vicki Sarris

Return on investment

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary now has a clearer understanding of how climate and human activities impact our coastal wildlife. Scientifically sound, the data have been used to designate special wildlife protection zones to benefit threatened and endangered species.

Beach Watch data are also integral to the assessment and quantification of damages from marine debris and oil pollution, so restoration funds can be secured to heal habitats, minimize lasting impacts on wildlife, and restore lost recreational uses and revenues. According to Point Reyes National Seashore Senior Scientific Advisor Dr. Sarah Allen, “Data on the deposition of oiled birds and tarballs has been key to assessing the injury to seabird colonies caused from oil spills such as the Cape Mohican and the Luckenbach. From these data, the agencies were able to assess the number and species of seabirds affected, and design restoration plans.”

Beach Watch data have been instrumental in acquiring more than $52 million in settlements from four oil spills. Even now, the program continues to detect lingering impacts of the 1953 Jacob Luckenbach shipwreck, and the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay.

snowy plover
The Beach Watch program provides data that help sanctuary managers protect the habitat of species like the snowy plover. Photo: Allison Formica

Walking the walk

State and federal governments have praised the program as an international model for citizen science. To date, hundreds of Beach Watch volunteers have donated many thousands of hours, valued at millions of dollars, and several are marking their 25th year as dedicated stewards of our oceans, a testament to the program’s impressive retention rate.

“You really feel like you’re making a contribution to something much bigger than yourself, but your focus is on your beach, so it doesn’t feel overwhelming,” says volunteer Anne Kelley. “We are all on this planet together, and Beach Watch is a small part of what it will take to keep it healthy.”

Working with sanctuary scientists, all help to carry out vital work. Together, we literally “walk the walk” as ocean conservationists.

Mary Jane Schramm is the media and public outreach specialist for Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.