An Intro to Citizen Science
Marine conservation is a growing industry, yet for Ocean Conservation efforts to be a success, reliable information is needed. Through ongoing partnerships with scientists, national governments, charities and local communities this information is obtained, protecting threatened marine environments, and providing a sustainable future. However, scientific monitoring by trained ecologists and scientists is too time consuming and costly. The success of projects such as Project AWARE’s Coral Watch programme suggests that by involving volunteers from around the world, the scale of marine research can be increased on larger, longer scales.
This form of research is also known as Citizen Science; the involvement of volunteers, collecting data across an array of habitats, locations and time. Citizen science projects have been remarkably successfully in advancing scientific knowledge. Contributions to research from this method now provide valuable information on species distribution around the world, both on land and in our oceans.
Importance of Our Oceans
The oceans drive weather, regulate temperatures, and support all living organisms. More than 3.5 billion people depend on the ocean for their primary source of food. In 20 years, this number could double to 7 billion. Yet 95 percent of the ocean remains unexplored, with millions of species yet to be discovered. This leaves many questions surrounding our current use and exploitation of the oceans, which may be harming and changing vital habitats and migratory patterns which are yet to be fully understood. Until now population and species censuses have been incomplete, focussing on single species or regions, making proper assessment of the impact of humans on oceans difficult.
Manta rays for example; despite their distribution in tropical and subtropical regions, very little information is known about their biology or ecology. Knowledge of manta populations and their migration patterns is essential for conservation. For large, long-lived species, tagging over the course of a lifetime is problematic (loss of tags, relocation and cost). The use of natural markings to identify individuals is a growing area of research, as it is relatively simple to distinguish between certain individual characteristics.
I recently witnessed this non-invasive method of species ‘tagging’ for a population census of Manta Rays in the Indian Ocean by Marine Biologist Andrea Marshall. The BBC programme followed Andrea researching these majestic animals, discovering more about their habits and recording individual sightings with underwater photography. Photographs of individual markings were uploaded to a database which she compared earlier data to, leading to the discovery of a giant new species. This highlights the need to explore our oceans with the desire to protect this fragile environment, by educating and involving the general public within scientific efforts more regularly.
Simply involving citizens within scientific research appears to be having positive effects, not just on the scientific outcomes, but also for the participants. Participants in numerous science education projects have been found to increase their knowledge on the species they are studying, helping to educate the general public about conservation and environmental issues through firsthand experience.
The recording, uploading and analysis of this citizen science data can help monitor individual’s species, whole populations and their habitats over large areas, and over long periods of time. Along with technological advances (GPS and cameras in mobile phones) this research can produce valuable information for Ocean management plans and Ocean policy. This will ultimately create a greater understanding of our oceans, formed firstly with the general public, learning more about the important species which make up our oceans, preserving them for the future.