Citizen Science: The collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists. Pacific Rockfish: Dozens of related Sebastes species sold under several market names, are the most important year-round source of groundfish on the West Coast and indicator species of overall community health (think: "canary in the coal mine").
SCUBA remains the most common and arguably most precise non-invasive fish survey method. However SCUBA-based research is time consuming, labour intensive and logistically challenging. The resultant low benefit:effort ratio keeps data volume modest relative to terrestrial research. The simple fact is: data acquisition is the rate-limiting step in any marine conservation research project.
In Canada, underwater research standards, including survey techniques, are set by the Canadian Association for Underwater Science (CAUS). CAUS certification as a Scientific Diver is the minimum required certification standard for most university-associated divers; this representing another significant throttle on collection of marine data for academic research. However, development of scientifically robust citizen science protocols has the potential revolutionize marine conservation science by erasing the data bottleneck permitting unparalleled scientific insight (Dickinson et al. 2010; Tulloch et. al. 2013).
Sport SCUBA diving is extremely popular in the Victoria / Southern Gulf Islands region. A coordinated effort by even a small percentage of sport divers in the region will dramatically increase our understanding of the health of the local marine community. It is with this objective in mind that we introduce the Salish Sea Citizen Science Project - Led by Scientific Diver Stefania Gorgopa and in collaboration with the Galiano [Island] Conservancy Association (GCA) and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, the world leader in mobilizing recreational divers in support of scientific research.
The long term objective of this project is the establishment of index sites throughout the Salish Sea (and beyond). An index site is a specified transect surveyed repeatedly by divers through time. Repeated surveys yield two very important and heretofore unavailable insights; first, a baseline community profile of each site is created and second, time series data critical to tracking changes relative to the baseline over time is created.
Baseline data at the scale of the fish community simply do not exist at present. As such policy and regulations are predicated on educated guesses as to how physical environments and anthropogenic activities interact to affect biotic communities. A critical benefit of baseline data is the opportunity to compare community structures across arrays of physical, biogeographic and anthropogenic gradients in order to tease apart what attributes disproportionality affect fine scale biodiversity and community structure.
Of even greater importance is the establishment of time series data (repeated surveys of a site through time). Only time series data can demonstrate change over time. Without such data we are blind to incremental changes in the environment (known as “shifting baselines” - Pauly 1995). The establishment of robust time series data across an array of coastal BC index sites has the potential to revolutionize conservation science and advocacy on this coast.
In partnership with REEF we will be creating a seamless process for divers to upload their dive data to the REEF database, a publicly accessible data archive queriable by scientists and other interested groups.
In summer 2017 the Salish Sea Citizen Science Project will launch with establishment of permanent index sites around Galiano Island and Saanich Peninsula. This initial phase includes a research program designed to facilitate establishment of future index sites addressing how best to optimize diver protocols to ensure maximum benefit is derived from citizen science efforts.
We are eager to welcome divers of all skill / experience levels to participate in this initial research phase. A critical question that must addressed prior to a broader launch is What characteristics most affect data precision and accuracy? In other words, if two randomly selected divers were to survey a site, what are the key sources of variation likely to be responsible if each diver differs in the number of species and individuals recorded? One might imagine diver-specific characteristics such as general dive experience or familiarity with identifying local fish species might play a role. So too might dive difficulty (depth, current speeds, visibility) or site characters (physical complexity and overall species diversity and abundances). Before data from different divers can be pooled to yield baseline and time series data, these various sources of variance must be resolved. Once completed we will produce an easy-to-follow protocol for divers of all skill levels to follow that will ensure maximum confidence in the data produced. In this same guide will be the protocols for establishing new index sites across the Salish Sea (and beyond). In time we envision index sites up and down the coastline, engaging hundreds of dives taking an active role in marine conservation.
References and further reading: Field, S. A. et al. Optimizing allocation of monitoring effort under economic and observational constraints. Journal of Wildlife Management 69, 473-482, (2005).
Moore, A. L. & McCarthy, M. A. Optimizing ecological survey effort over space and time. Methods Ecol. Evol. 7, 891-899, (2016).
Dickinson, J. L. et al. Citizen science as an ecological research tool: Challenges and benefits. Annual Review of Ecology Evolution and Systematics (eds D. J. Futuyma, H. B. Shafer, & D. Simberloff) 149- 172 (Volume 41; Annual Reviews, 2010).
Tulloch, A. I. T. et al. Realising the full potential of citizen science monitoring programs. Biol. Conserv. 165, 128-138, (2013).
Bird, T. J. et al. Statistical solutions for error and bias in global citizen science datasets. Biol. Conserv. 173, 144-154, (2014).
Branchini, S. et al. Using a citizen science program to monitor coral reef biodiversity through space and time. Biodivers. Conserv. 24, 319-336, (2015).
Goffredo, S. et al. Unite research with what citizens do for fun: "recreational monitoring'' of marine biodiversity. Ecol. Appl. 20, 2170-2187, (2010).