How can you turn volunteers into Citizen Scientists? Go Fish!

Katie kiss fishGuest Author Katie Pierson: “I enjoy empowering diverse parties in scientific research, be it citizen science or facilitating research collaboration.  No matter where life takes me, I will always love being out in the field with people and fish.”

IMG_8747Cyrillic_As heavy fog nestles into the corners of the bay and sea lions loudly discuss their breakfast plans to anyone who will listen, the scientific sampling crew arrives for the day. The guy wearing mirrored aviator glasses to hide the sand bags under his eyes explains that he has never volunteered to be part of a scientific study before, while another who more nimbly clambers aboard the contracted charter boat explains that this is her third time out volunteering as a citizen scientist.

With a couple hour boat ride to the fishing grounds, the mates quickly pull the ropes, and the newly introduced citizen scientists embark. As the boat crosses under the Newport Bridge, lead scientists onboard with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) explain to the volunteers the difference between being on a charter boat for fun and being on a charter boat for science. For science, fishing is a timed effort, and all folks must fish for the full length of time…even if the sea starts to reverse the flow of your digestion tract! Most importantly, all fish are measured, weighed, and released back to the water. If folks want meat for the freezer, this is the wrong boat!

IMG_8743There has been a growing movement towards engaging volunteers to work on scientific research projects. During these projects, the public gains a deeper sense of stewardship towards environmental resources while making the scientific process more transparent. For this particular study, of which I was the coordinator of volunteer scientists for a brief time, the Oregon Marine Reserve hook-and-line survey organized volunteer anglers to fish inside and outside of no-take marine reserve boundaries to compare and monitor fish populations.

IMG_8761One of the main objectives of a Marine Reserve is to export larger fish (see The Fisheries Blog article “The Cup Spilleth-over”), which is why the hook-and-line survey is hoping to track changes in the average length of different fish species over time. The ODFW survey is designed to measure the magnitude of change from before the reserve went into effect (or the stop of all fishing) to a point in the future when a change can potentially be detected. Since marine reserves are defined as no-take zones, the only time it is legal to fish within their boundaries are as a citizen scientist with ODFW.

IMG_8763As we arrive at the marine reserve, there are no signs, no markers…there is simply an imaginary boundary protecting these grounds from angling efforts in hopes that fish will grow big and contribute to surrounding areas. The volunteer scientists take their positions with rods in hand, and “Go fish” is loudly announced by a biologist as he hits the button on the stopwatch. This timed fishing effort is an integral part of hook-and-line surveys of this kind (see also California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program), allowing for estimates of relative abundance of different rockfish (i.e. how many fish were caught per hour). From the time that “Go fish” is announced, to the time when “Lines Up” is called, when all anglers must reel up, is roughly a 15 minute drift. This 15 minute sampling period is repeated many times throughout the day. When a volunteer scientist reels a fish over the rail, the volunteer clicks a button on a fish counter around their neck as a crew member grabs the fish and brings it to the measuring station for scientific processing and release back to the depths, all while the angler continues to fish.

IMG_8790Through this program, volunteers get a day on the water, where they get a first row seat to the diversity that is brought onboard the boat, and scientists get data from fish in hand that can help inform differences in fish populations. A typical day would see black, blue, canary, and quillback rockfish as well as lingcod and kelp greenling.

The number of citizen scientists involved with this project have made the program an overwhelming success.  Can you identify projects in your area where citizen scientists can get involved?

I encourage those of you who are scientists to engage the public in your research because it has great rewards for you, the community, and the resource, and if you are a member of the public looking to be involved, check out projects in your community and ask how you can get involved!

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Judith says:

    Hearing comments to a scientist like, “you’re using our taxes (government grant) for this research?” shocked me, as a volunteer citizen scientist, into realizing how important public education is! Volunteer citizen scientists learn so much, and articulate information and enthusiasm for the work of scientists to many other people.

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