So Much Opportunity for Citizen Scientists in the Salish Sea

By Bob Friel

Science CAN be a walk in the park.

Or a stroll on the beach. Or a dive in the sea.

From astronomy to zoology, there has never been as much opportunity for “regular” people to actively take part in science. Citizen scientists, data collectors with day jobs, retiree researchers, whatever you want to call them: folks without advanced degrees are out there every day doing invaluable work to advance science. And for anyone with a passion for the environment, our vibrant Salish Sea is the perfect place to join in.


Photo by COASST

Photo by COASST

“Science is a team sport,” says Julia Parrish, University of Washington professor and founder/director of COASST, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team. “Citizens are the boots on the ground, collecting information and sending it to scientists who do the analysis.”

Parrish says that the information collected by volunteers like her 800-plus COASSTers is “broad extent, fine grain and, when done right, high quality data that isn’t obtainable any other way.”

To make sure it’s done right, folks interested in COASST attend at least one day-long session where, in exchange for a $20 deposit and a promise to survey their chosen beach at least once a month, they’re given the training and tools to enable them to identify beach-cast birds (there’s an additional session for those also interested in collecting data on marine debris).

“COASST’s materials are very impressive,” says Markus Naugle, SeaDoc’s director and a brand-new COASSTer. “Using their intuitive field guide and measuring tools, you learn how to identify seabirds to family and possibly even down to species level based solely on finding parts—even just a foot or a wing—cast up on the beach.”

With our region recently suffering unusual mortality events involving Cassins and Rhinoceros auklets, data gathered on COASSTers’ scientific beach strolls have contributed vitally important baseline measurements of seabird health as well as useful information advancing many other conservation and resource management issues.


Photo by Bill Hoglund

Photo by Bill Hoglund

Another citizen science program that gives you a reason to get to the beach is the Marine Mammal Stranding Network (MMSN), which is permitted by NOAA to respond to both live and dead strandings of seals, dolphins, whales, and all other animals managed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“I LOVE volunteering with the stranding network!” says Erin Shackelford, a responder for the San Juan County chapter based out of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. “I get to work with a great group of people, it’s an incredible opportunity to learn about the environment up close, and when I respond to a call, I really feel as if I’m making a difference.”

Most of the stranding calls in the Salish Sea are for harbor seal pups that have either become separated from their mothers or washed ashore deceased. For live animals, volunteers monitor, tag, collect data, and sometimes, if they’ve been injured due to human contact, collect the pups for rehabilitation. “But even when the stranding involves a dead animal,” says Erin, “I know I’m helping to gather information that’s important to the health and future of the Salish Sea.”

In San Juan County, SeaDoc’s lead scientist Joe Gaydos performs necropsies on specimens collected by the stranding network. “The information we can gather from an animal that’s washed ashore,” says Joe, “whether it’s died from disease, malnourishment, entanglement, or any other reason, is critical to understanding what’s going on in the ecosystem. The stranding network is an invaluable resource.”

Data from the MMSN and its related necropsies have been used in many peer-reviewed studies—quite a few in partnership with SeaDoc, including the bizarre find of the first-known case of a harbor seal with equally developed conjoined twins, and another that investigated a murder mystery involving a Salish Sea serial killer!

Local chapters of the MMSN cover the entire Salish Sea (find yours here) and offer free training and yearly refreshers.

Counting Birds at Christmas

The longest-running citizen science program in the United States is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which started with 27 birders spotting 90 species on December 25, 1900. These days, tens of thousands of volunteers fan out within thousands of defined 15-mile diameter “count circles” to collect data that assesses the health and guides the conservation of hundreds of bird species. And now you don’t have to be an expert birder or miss unwrapping your presents to take part.

The “Christmas” bird count actually takes place anytime between December 14 and January 5 in order to collect status and trend data for the winter season. Each local circle is managed by an official Count Compiler (like Count Dracula, but for birds), who signs up volunteers and makes sure each group has at least one expert birdwatcher on hand.

The Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish & Wildlife, and others all use CBC data. Audubon itself used the crowd-sourced science in their disturbing 2014 report that predicts that 314 of the 588 North American species studied will lose more than half of their current climate range by 2080 due to climate change.

To find a circle near you and to join the next Christmas Bird Count, check out Audubon’s CBC site.


Photo by Pete Naylor

Photo by Pete Naylor

What began 27 years ago as a sort of Audubon Society for fish, REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) has grown into one of the most respected participatory marine science programs in the world, with more than 213,000 underwater surveys completed by its sea of bubbling volunteers.

Chuck Curry, a long-time SeaDoc supporter from Bainbridge Island, WA, started scuba diving more than 30 years ago, but didn’t realize there was a way for him to combine his love of diving with his passionate support of science until he heard about REEF at a SeaDoc event in 2013.

“SeaDoc announced a partnership with REEF on a ten-year subtidal monitoring project that would use volunteer divers to collect the data,” says Chuck. His reaction was immediate: “I want to do that!”

Chuck joined REEF, began doing underwater surveys, quickly earned his expert rating in identifying Salish Sea fish and invertebrates, and now gets to work on that monitoring project. It was local REEF divers like Chuck that collected the baseline data and then served as the early warning system that alerted researchers to SSWD, Sea Star Wasting Disease. These citizen Cousteaus are also crucial to our ongoing efforts to identify the scope and severity of the outbreak.

“I appreciate how fortunate I am as a diver to see the marine environment firsthand,” says Chuck. “Doing REEF surveys not only helps me stay intimately connected to the Salish Sea, they also give me the opportunity to collect meaningful data for scientists working on conserving a place I love.”

This ethos of giving back is common in citizen science. We all have a stake in a healthy Salish Sea, and when in addition to supporting SeaDoc’s professional scientists you can also get out there and actively contribute to conservation, it can be even more gratifying.

As Julia Parrish of COASST says, “Volunteers are directly involved in collecting information about an ecosystem they’re connected to and want to know more about. This is experiential learning at its best! It deepens their connection and makes them advocate for the science that we do together. Who could ask for more than that?”



Banner photo courtesy of Bill Hoglund.