Citizen Science Projects

CoastWatch has long sponsored citizen science projects, such as the beached bird survey in which many mile adopters participate. These have gradually become more popular, and we currently conduct seven citizen science projects. Through our "Community Engagement with Marine Reserves" project, we are developing a special project to enhance these efforts on the coastline facing Oregon’s new marine reserves. 

Volunteers Jessica Waddell and Karen Heere surveying sea stars.  Photo by Fawn Custer.
Volunteers Jessica Waddell and Karen Heere surveying sea stars. Photo by Fawn Custer.

Citizen science has become an important component of environmental science nationally and around the world.  The fact that ecosystems are increasingly threatened by human activities makes it more critical to monitor them carefully.  There aren’t enough scientists and resource agency personnel to have eyes and ears everywhere, which is why citizen scientists can play such a crucial role.  By making careful observations and using structured protocols for reporting accurate data, volunteers can extend the reach of scientists and help track changes in the environment.  Citizen scientists are counting birds, measuring water quality, and identifying plankton, among many other studies.  Here in Oregon, CoastWatch encourages volunteers to participate in surveys for Black Oystercatchers, Brown Pelicans, and Western Snowy Plovers, helping with projects that we are affiliated with but do not organize ourselves.

CoastWatch organizes seven citizen science projects.  Some are well established, and others are in development. Some involve joining a team for a formal survey according to scientific protocols; others are simply a matter of CoastWatchers (and other interested citizens) increasing their vigilance for certain types of phenomena they may observe and knowing where to report the information. 

To produce good information, while serving as a vehicle for public education about Oregon's marine resources, we'll need many more volunteers for all these projects. Even where we have solid teams already at work, we would like to expand the teams for greater long-term stability, and with many of these projects, we need more volunteers in more places in order to succeed in producing results. Volunteers could be CoastWatchers, other Oregon Shores members, or any interested community member. The citizen science projects include: 

  • The beached bird survey, in which CoastWatch partners with COASST (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, based at the University of Washington). This involves monthly surveys, using a formal protocol that produces genuine scientific data.
  • Marine debris monitoring, using a protocol developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This project also involves consistent monthly surveys and produces scientifically useful data.  We are working at 11 sites, and need additional volunteers to shore up the teams working on a number of them. See this background paper for more information.
  • The sea star population survey, another project that utilizes a formal protocol (developed by PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, based at Oregon State University) and produces scientific data. We have teams working at several sites, but need more volunteers to expand the project. 
  • Marine mammal stranding, in cooperation with Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network. This isn't a formal survey, but we actively train and encourage all CoastWatch mile adopters and other volunteers to report all stranded animals, alive or dead, and provide a form on our website that goes directly to the stranding network. This work produces data points for the stranding network.
  • "Beached marine critters" survey, using a protocol that provides an online means of recording observations of stranded sharks, squid, sea turtles and two species of fish. As with the marine mammal stranding network, this doesn't involve a systematic survey, but if enough volunteers know what to look for and file reports regularly, we will produce data points of use to scientists and resource agencies.
  • Invasive species monitoring.  At present, this primarily involves species carried on tsunami debris, training volunteers in what to look for, how to handle it, and how to report it to scientists at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. CoastWatchers have been the first observers of tsunami debris carrying non-native organisms in dozens of cases that have helped to inform the scientists working on this issue. Our goal is to expand training to include other types of invasives that can be observed on the shoreline, such as algae observed either in situ or in the driftline.
  • King Tide photography project.  Each fall, volunteers photograph the year's highest tides ("king tides"), to demonstrate current coastal flooding vulnerabilities and to anticipate what will become ordinary tide levels with sea level rise. The 2020-2021 edition of this project is coming up soon; here are the details.
  • Hybrid beachgrass survey. Our most recent citizen science project is a collaboration with scientists at Oregon State University, who are on the trail of a newly discovered beachgrass, a hybrid of the two invasive species of beachgrass that dominate Oregon's coastal foredunes.  How widespread this new hybrid species may be, and how it may alter the ecology and shape of the Oregon shores, is unknown, and volunteers are needed to help track the spread of the hybrid and compile information that will help to answer these questions.  For more on this project, go here

CoastWatch provides training for these citizen science projects on a continuing basis. To volunteer or for more information, contact Jesse Jones, CoastWatch's volunteer coordinator, (503) 989-7244, [email protected]; or Fawn Custer, our citizen science trainer, (541) 270-0027, [email protected].