Citizen Science, Sailors and the State of Our Oceans

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Whales are only one of many marine species affected by the state of the world’s oceans today

Whales are only one of many marine species affected by the state of the world’s oceans today

As a child, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, decisively, a marine biologist. Did I have any clue what a marine biologist was? Not really. I was only 5. But it sounded smart and had something to do with the water and seals. Today, however, as a liveaboard sailor, I am proud to say that while I may not have fulfilled my childhood dream of becoming a marine biologist I can, honestly and with confidence, call myself a citizen scientist.

In simple terms, citizen science is a way of converting the efforts of various volunteers into measurable results, through the general public’s participation in scientific research. It is, essentially, people-powered research, and it is helping save our oceans.

This concept has been in development, adapted and experimented with for years, and the benefits are measurable. Citizen science has already helped with oceanographic research and exploration, marine technologies, resource management, ecosystem surveying, monitoring and ocean education. No matter how big or small the project, when you are making an effort to contribute to scientific research, you can go to sleep at night knowing you have made a positive impact on the future of our oceans and therefore the future of humanity.

Photo by Paul Humann

A diver conducts a Volunteer Fish Survey for REEF

There are a number of ways for sailors of all stripes to get involved, and whether you realize it or not, many of you out there already are. Whether by something as simple as marking the location of a large marine mammal on your chart, or using your boat hook, such as I often do living on Boston Harbor, to pull a piece of plastic out of the sea, and marking that location as well, via an app such as the Marine Debris Tracker, you are already helping to improve the condition of the deep blue seas that surround us.

As Steve Haddock of jellywatch.org puts it: “Probably more than any other pool of participants, sailors have such a unique combination of experience, geographical coverage and eyes on the water that makes them a perfect fit for JellyWatch and citizen science in general.

The number of organizations and programs that are popping up in the field of citizen science, as well as educating and encouraging people to take part, is growing rapidly. For example, these missions are helping people to do things such as identifying humpback whales, collecting and tracking marine debris, measuring phytoplankton, reporting illegal fishing, and doing much more things to assist in this scientific research.

Ellie Splain of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, for example, says that her organization, “engages the public in active conservation and provides a platform to make a difference. REEF’s citizen science programs include the Volunteer Fish Survey Project, Invasive Species Programs, endangered species protection, leading to the discovery of new species, action against exotic and invasive species, and successful conservation of keystone species.”

Similarly, JellyWatch’s Haddock says volunteers can be involved in everything from telling JellyWatch if they see a jellyfish, squid, red tide, or other unusual marine life, or better yet, if they have a camera on hand, submitting a picture of it, to reporting “Zereos,” their “Clean Seas” option that offers a place to indicate clean beaches, normal conditions, and jelly free locations. “For sailors, our iPhone app is probably the best way to participate,” he adds. “It will gather the location information from a photo, and can queue up reports when out of internet coverage, to submit them in bulk upon returning to connectivity.”

It’s easy to get involved. Most programs allow you to sign up or join for free and for many organizations it’s as easy as downloading an app. While internet issues pop up all the time for full-time cruisers, the creators of the apps, such as JellyWatch, are coming up with solutions.

“Most of these projects require minimal equipment that you can often build at home or purchase at your local hardware store and a smart phone, says Shelley Brown of Sailors for the Sea. “As technology continues to advance, sailors will be ever more important to collecting data to help advance our knowledge and protect our precious ocean.”

Photo courtesy of Sailors for the Sea

Kelsey Delosh, an intern at Sailors for the Sea, tests out a homemade device to collect microplastics

How to get involved

OCEAN SANCTUARIESoceansanctuaries.org

“Our oceans reflect the consciousness of humanity.”

Ocean Sanctuaries is a non-profit organization dedicated to collecting crowdsourced data from collaborative non-professionally trained individuals to observe ocean life. We use the information collected to educate people around the world through lectures and documentary films. Our joint efforts promote knowledge and awareness of the oceans and allow people to live abundantly.

THE MARINE DEBRIS TRACKERmarinedebris.engr.uga.edu

This app aims to engage volunteers in marine conservation, as well as skill development in data collection and clean-up of marine pollutants. “Marine debris enters our environment in several ways and from various sources, including inadequately managed waste, littering, wastewater flows, storm-water runoff, catastrophic events, and loss from ships,” it says.

THE SECCI APPsecchidisk.org

“For citizen scientists eager to help save our oceans, the Secci app is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg,” say the Secchi people. This citizen science study began in 2013 to create a long-term database of phytoplankton change in the world’s oceans. The success of the Secchi Disk project relies upon it being known to seafarers-sailors, divers and fishermen. 

SAILORS FOR THE SEAsailorsforthesea.org

Sailors for the Sea is a leading ocean conservation organization that engages, educates and activates the sailing and boating community toward healing the ocean. Because sailors spend so much time on the water, they often see many of the problems our ocean faces first-hand, from oil spills to fish kills to plastic debris. This puts sailors in a perfect position to take personal action to protect their waterways and become advocates for the ocean.

HELLO OCEANhelloocean.org

Hello Ocean creates opportunities for citizen science that bring together engineers, scientists, the maritime industry, as well as the recreational boating industry to do collaborative research on the ocean’s most pressing issues.

REEFreef.org

REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting, and enabling SCUBA divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists. This is primarily achieved through the Volunteer Fish Survey Project, in which volunteers collect and report information on marine fish populations, and in some regions invertebrate and algae species, from around the world.

March 2017

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