Category Archives: Citizen Science

Multi-tasking underwater

Often when I say to people I do underwater biodiversity/habitat surveys, they have an image of glorious tropical seas, great visibility, and general ohhing and ahhing at the beautiful marine critters. The reality is somewhat different (especially when you’re not in tropical waters!).

A small team of intrepid divers are currently undertaking maerl surveys at an offshore reef, just off the coast of Jersey (Channel Islands).  Maerl is a hard red seaweed, that forms little blobs.  It’s a super important habitat for our smaller ocean brethren, and super slow growing too.  On this particular survey, my job was to conduct a general habitat and species survey of the site, and keep hold of the SMB – basically and inflatable sausage attached to the end of the line you can see me holding that sits on the surface of the sea so we can be spotted.  You can see that the visibility wasn’t that great, but what you can’t see is the current that was trying to take me one direction, whilst the wind was pulling the SMB the other.  This is why I’m kneeling on the seabed so I could make some notes on the board I am holding, whilst also making sure I don’t let go of the SMB!

Image: Taken by Kevin McIlwee/Jersey Seasearch

Citizen Science shows promise for shark monitoring

Earlier this year the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Shark Specialist Group took a close look at the status of chondrichthyes -that’s sharks, rays, skates, and chimaeras.  Their findings did not make for happy reading.  Just 23% of the species that make up this group were classified as ‘Least Concern’.  But that doesn’t mean the remaining 77% of sharks are threatened, because the research also revealed that around 46% of the species that make up the chondrichthyes are classed as ‘data deficient’ – meaning we really don’t have enough information to figure out what their population status is.  Given that many chondrichthyes are in bad shape, it is important that we rectify this data deficiency so we can better direct conservation management.  The trouble is, data doesn’t come cheap – especially when it involves obtaining data on marine species.

One of the methods used for studying shark populations is to use acoustic telemetry.  The exact details vary, but the general process is to 1) catch a shark 2) attach an acoustic tag to it 3) deploy acoustic receivers 4) collect ‘ping’ data (when a tagged shark comes in range of a receiver) from the acoustic receiver 5) analyse data to figure out which sharks have been where and when.  Of course this method only tells us when a shark has come across a receiving station, so if a shark happens to spend a lot of time out of the range of a station, we wouldn’t get a ‘ping’ to analyse.  There are other methods of monitoring shark movements that get around this problem but they are costly – more costly than acoustic monitoring which doesn’t come cheap.  This isn’t to say that acoustic monitoring isn’t useful.  If you have an area that is known to have resident sharks, or frequented by visiting sharks, deploying acoustic monitoring in those areas can act as a population monitoring point.  With limited funds for research and conservation, there is always a balance between collecting the best data technology can provide, with collecting the best data that we can afford.  Perhaps monitoring doesn’t always have to involve high-tech gadgets at all.  After all, there are many parts of the world where scuba diving and snorkelling occurs regularly.  Can these human eyes act as reliable data collectors?  Continue reading Citizen Science shows promise for shark monitoring

Secchi disk:  Simple technology for ocean science

We still have a lot to learn about the ocean.  Technology is helping us to uncover more and more about this blue planet, but not all technology needs to be complicated.  Some can be absurdly simple.

The Secchi disk doesn’t look like much – a black and white/all white disk attached to some rope, a measuring tape, or a pole, with a weight suspended underneath.  It’s not even complicated to use – just lower it into the water until you can’t see it anymore (the point known as the Secchi depth).  Excited?  No me neither.  But this simple technology tells us something important – the turbidity of the water at that particular point, at that particular time.  Turbidity is a measure of water clarity.  Particles in the water prevent light penetrating through the water column.  So the more particles there are, the less light can penetrate, and the more turbid it is.  Particles that restrict light can be almost anything – from silts and clays to plankton and other tiny critters.  Secchi disks in cruder forms (china plates!) have been around since the early 1800’s , but the actual disk itself was first developed and extensively used by Pietro Angelo Secchi – a priest and astronomer who undertook oceanographic research whilst aboard the papal yacht L’Immacolata Concezione.  There are of course more efficient and accurate ways to measure turbidity these days, but the Secchi disk is still in use.  Here are a couple of open access pieces for your enjoyment:

Building up a picture of the Baltic Sea
Because Secchi disks are ‘old school technology’ they have collected data on turbidity for a long time.  In some places – like the Baltic Sea – Secchi disks have been used repeatedly for a several years.  In this paper by Oer Sanden of Linkoping University and Bertil Jakansson of the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute compare the Secchi depths of two separate time periods – 1919 to 1939 and 1969 to 1991.  With this data, the researchers were able to get a grasp on the scale and magnitude of eutrophication (phytoplankton blooms as a result of increased nutrient) in the Baltic Sea.  Their analysis indicated that the Secchi depth was declining by an average of 0.05 meters per year, indicating that phytoplankton was indeed increasing, and thus turbidity decreasing.  The discussion is particularly interesting as the researchers explore the possible reasons why this decline would be seen.  You can access the paper here

Tying all the data together
Long term data is great.  The more long-term data we have, the more we can start to understand trends and patterns and determine long-terms changes.  One of the problems we have is tying together data collected using different techniques as the measurements may not necessarily be consistent – especially as newer technology is often much more accurate than older technologies.  In this paper by Daniel Boyce and colleagues from Dalhousie University, Secchi disk data is tied to satellite remote sensing and newer in-situ measuring data.  They can do this because the Secchi disk data is surprisingly robust.  As long as the researchers can determine the methodology used to collect Secchi depths, then the information is comparable.  This is great news because this team of researchers were able to create a “globally integrated chlorophyll time series extending 120 years into the past”.   Chloro-what-now you ask?  Chlorophyll in the ocean is an indicator of phytoplankton biomass – tiny free-floating one-celled ‘plants’ that float freely in the ocean.  Very cool.  See their paper here

Get Involved!
Because the Secchi disk is so simple, it is a prime candidate for citizen science research.  Dr Richard Kirby of the Plymouth University Marine Institute is just one of many scientists around the world concerned with reports that in some areas oceanic plankton is declining, particularly as temperatures increase.  To get a better handle on what’s happening at a global scale, Richard is asking help from boat owners.  All you need to do is make your own Secchi disk, download a free app, and follow some very simple instructions.  Read more about this project – including how you can get involved and make your own disk – at Plymouth University’s  page here

Image:  Dr Richard Kirby from Plymouth University demonstrates that the Secchi disk is so simple, even a scientist can use one.  Credit:  Image made available via the media pack.

Citizen Science for Fisheries Management

Citizen science isn’t just something for people in developed nations.  It’s also a useful tool for less wealthy nations – and particularly for communities dependent on marine resources.  In fact involving local people in research might be one of the few ways in which both communities and researchers in developing nations can obtain datasets spanning long periods of time.  These datasets not only important for understanding our marine world, but also for ensuring we manage our interactions with as small an impact as possible.  Two articles have appeared over the past week that take a look at Island fishing communities and their involvement in science. Continue reading Citizen Science for Fisheries Management

Citizen science data throws light on functional diversity

Citizen science is pretty cool.  As a participant you can learn new things, explore new places and ideas, and have fun!  It can even make a valued contribution to science – which is exactly what trained recreational scuba divers participating in the global project Reef Life Survey did for a new paper published in ‘Nature’ just a few days ago.  These citizen scientists have been a busy bunch, undertaking some 4,357 transects at 1,844 sites.  These divers weren’t just found in those nice warm tropical waters either, spreading out to 74 of the world’s marine ecoregions*, finding some 2, 473 species of fish.  This very wide-ranging data – all collected in the same manner – has thrown up something interesting.  Sure coral reefs have really high fish species richness – a raw count of the number of different species (actually as far as we know the most species rich of all marine habitats), but does that mean that coral reefs are the most diverse system?  Perhaps not. Continue reading Citizen science data throws light on functional diversity

Keeping an eye on invasive species

One of the problems with monitoring the spread of invasive critters in the ocean is just finding them.  But there are many human eyes peering into the blue these days…eyes that can help science.

If you’re a scuba diver or a snorkeler in the UK then you could get involved in a spot of citizen science.   Your mission should you choose to accept it?  Report any sightings for non-native species of fish, invertebrates and plants  to ‘the authorities’.

sealife tracker
Thanks to a clever app developed by the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC), the University of Bristol, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency , and the Environment Agency, that task is not so difficult. This is how it works..

The app provides information on around 19 easily identifiable invasive plants, fish, and invertebrates.  All you have to do is log any sightings of those species on the app and hey presto the data is sent out to the respective organisations.  You don’t even have to remember all the species off by heart – BSAC have provided a handy ID sheet that you can laminate and take underwater with you.

The app is currently only available for iPhones and iPads, but BSAC promise an android version is on its way in the near future.


Image: A couple of people enjoying snorkeling at Big Pine Key in Florida, USA.  Credit Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)