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How Citizen Science Is Saving Our Oceans

Sailors, divers, and anglers around the world are participating in the largest marine citizen science study known to man.

Over the last 50 years, phytoplankton production has gone down by 40 percent as climate change has warmed the oceans that cover 70 percent of our planet. Responsible for half of all photosynthesis that occurs here on Earth, these tiny microorganisms sitting on the sunlit sea surface transform light into oxygen and nutrients, protecting our aquatic food web. Without them, the ocean would be a barren wilderness.


Phytoplankton abundance undeniably correlates to the abundance of all life at sea, while influencing (and being influenced by) the global carbon cycle. But can we really blame climate change for the decline in these tiny organisms? Dr. Richard Kirby, plankton scientist for the United Kingdom’s Plymouth University Marine Institute, aims to prove that this is the case by leveraging the data of citizen scientists through something Kirby calls the Secchi Disk study.

“Often we look back and wish we had started measuring something years ago,” Kirby says. “Well, there is no time like the present to start studying something for the future.” And since February 22, 2013, Kirby has inspired sailors, divers, and anglers around the world to participate in his project, which has grown to become the largest marine citizen science study known to man.

A Secchi Disk. Photo courtesy of secchidisk.org.

The goal of the study is to map the ocean’s phytoplankton with as much accuracy as possible, because the 40 percent decline in phytoplankton reported by Canadian scientists in 2010 was determined by utilizing data collected via two entirely different methods—Secchi Disk data for the first 50 years, and chlorophyll data for the last 50 years.

"Some said that they did not see any similar decline, while others said they saw an increase rather than a decline," Kirby says. To determine which of these findings is more indicative of the global trend, the Secchi Disk study combines new and old world technology.

A Secchi Disk in action.

Secchi Disks aren’t exactly technological marvels—anyone can make one by mounting plain white bucket lids onto weighted tape measures, nearly identical to the first such disk dreamed up by Angelo Secchi in 1865. Secchi Disks are mounted on a pole or line, then lowered slowly into the water. The depth at which the Disk is no longer visible is taken as a measure of the transparency of the water, which—thanks to Kirby—can then be tracked using the Secchi App, where citizen scientists can also upload pictures and report the clarity of the oceans they’ve measured, their GPS locations, the local water temperature, and observations about sea life in the area.

Kirby gets daily reports from citizen scientists around the world, all as part of a long-term project with no end date in sight. Thus, analysis is a relentless endeavor that requires a great deal of time and energy. As he prepares to write his first scientific paper describing the project’s progress so far, Kirby is just now digging into Secchi depths collected from the Northwest Passage last summer. Though studying this region alone is an all-consuming project, Kirby sees a need for more data from citizen scientists, as there has been little recorded about the southern hemisphere, likely because the oceans there are so remote and subject to such extreme weather.

“The more Secchi depths we receive, the more and varied questions that we and other scientists can address, or even the participants can study, since the data is free to everyone who takes part. So, if you sail the seas and take part in the Secchi Disk study, you will leave a legacy of data for future generations, and for your grandchildren, perhaps,” Kirby says.

Phytoplankton. Photo courtesy of planktonpundit.org.

For citizen scientists eager to help save our oceans, the Secchi app is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Another incredible app, the Marine Debris Tracker—a joint partnership between the NOAA Marine Debris Division and the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative (SEA-MDI)—aims to engage volunteers in marine conservation, as well as skill development in data collection and clean-up of marine pollutants.

According to the app’s creators, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kyle Johnson:

“Marine debris enters our environment in several ways and from various sources, including inadequately managed waste, littering, wastewater flows, stormwater runoff, catastrophic events, and loss from ships. Plastic physically degrades into smaller fragments, called microplastic, that can both transport organisms, including invasive species, and host their own microbial communities. Plastics also absorb persistent organic pollutants and have been shown to impact fish.”

Within its first year, the initiative inspired 216 volunteers to commit to 17 clean-ups along the beaches of Jeckyll Island, Georgia. That’s 461 hours of marine debris removal, and heck of a lot of pollutants—89 percent of which were plastics, the rest an assortment of metal, lumber, glass, fishing gear, rubber, and other materials. Want more specifics about those numbers, including exactly how much fishing gear there was (1.1 percent of the total), what kinds of plastics were found (3.6 percent were bags), or the animals affected by that debris (mostly seabirds, at 44 percent)? The app has all of that information available for your perusal. It’s not just about research or numbers, though. It’s about the people who provide it. Volunteers of all ages, even elementary students, are taking the time to track debris, then upload their data to the Marine Debris Tracker. Those volunteers come from Nebraska, Southern California, Florida, South Carolina, and other points across the country—all of them helping Jambeck and Johnson visualize where litter and debris originate, so we can figure out a way to remove it before it makes its way into the ocean.

Jambeck realized how much of an impact she had on users when oceans advocate Emily Penn named the Marine Debris Tracker as an “App We Can’t Live Without” at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June 2014. Today, the app has been downloaded over 11,000 times by over 774 registered users, 15 to 20 who report debris on a near-daily basis. Jambeck and Johnson are also starting to see the app go international, with contributions coming in from Costa Rica, Brunei, even Iran. Hopefully, with a worldwide impact, the app will motivate lawmakers to change how we manage marine debris in the future.

After all, citizen scientists are citizens of the real world, too. Ecology and Society writer Lynam T. Jong says, “Individuals that participate in citizen science also tend to be more engaged in local issues, participate more in community development, and have more influence on policy-makers.” Using a science app once in awhile might not seem like that big of a deal, but Penn believes that those who do really can save our oceans, or what Penn likes to call the “lungs of our planet…essential to the health of us, as human beings.”

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