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Citizen Science

Volunteers making a difference for shark conservation

Photo Credit: Samantha Whitcraft
Citizen Science

Citizen science initiatives are growing in importance internationally and in the marine field. Generally ‘citizen science’ refers to a network of volunteers, many of who may have no specific scientific training, performing research-related tasks such as recording species observations accumulated over time to reveal local trends.

The cumulative, recorded observations of nature can help improve the quantity and value of information available for science and conservation.

To date, there have been several successful long-term initiative that utilize citizens science. For example, the Audubon Society has held the longest running, most successful such initiative, the Annual Christmas Bird Count since 1900. Each year, an estimated 60,000-80,000 individuals participate in a month-long bird counting event. This program provides long-term population data over a large geographic range, with relatively low effort by individuals. It would be impossible for ornithologists to generate the amount of data that all of these avid ‘birders’ are able to document.

These bird counts, in collaboration with the Cornell School of Ornithology, led to the creation of a program called eBird. This program now allows anyone to continuously and independently input data of their individual bird observations year round directly into an online database. This program enables scientists and advocacy groups the opportunity to access the cumulative data to analyze and ask specific questions about the status and trends of species and populations worldwide. (Learn more about this here)

More recently, citizen science initiatives have been developed in the marine field. For example, Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) has been engaging divers and snorkelers to conduct reef fish surveys to help understand and conserve tropical coral reefs and California’s rocky reefs since the mid 1990s. Data from these surveys have been used in scientific publications, in sanctuary reports, and in monitoring plans.

More in-depth citizen science methods have also been developed, such as ReefCheck. ReefCheck trains teams of divers to collect specific ecological data beyond basic species identification and counts. Results from citizen science initiatives -- including projects that collect information on sea turtle and cetacean sightings – can help ensure support improved conservation and management of charismatic megafauna, like sharks.

‘Citizen science’ can enhance ecological literacy and often gets the public more interested in and knowledgeable about critical environmental issues.

These initiatives support ‘scientific democracy’, where data can be shared among and utilized by scientists, policy makers, and the public creating social bonds among citizens/divers and local conservation groups. Marine citizen science programs can help promote sustainable and meaningful ecotourism, which can be beneficial to coastal communities both economically and ecologically. Dive operators in island nations, like Fiji and the Bahamas are embracing ‘citizen science for sharks’ as an integral part of promoting their dive destinations and local marine conservation.


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