Citizen Science: How you can help protect the oceans

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There was a time when you could do research for the sake of research, for simply advancing the collective knowledge of humanity and our natural world. However, the 21st Century has revealed the unrelenting impacts of our actions on the natural world, and it’s generally expected that natural science research conducted can be applied to protecting and sustainably managing our environment. 

Why do the oceans need citizen scientists?

There is a challenge. The oceans are big. Really big. 71% of our world, big. When people say we know more about the surface of the moon than our own sea floor, it’s not a joke. The vastness of the marine environment is a logistical and financial nightmare when it comes to studying it. Over the years, modern scientists have come to realise they cannot do it alone. Enter 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.

There’s a huge range of citizen science programmes for the ocean: you could help monitor ecosystems using indicator species that are used to infer how healthy it is; you could record individual species to help fill in the gaps in our knowledge about their range or behaviour; or you could help track critical issues like marine debris. For some programmes, you may need to be trained and commit your time. For others, all you need is a camera (and underwater housing!). 

As divers, we are on or in the sea more than most scientists ever can be. That’s one of the reasons participating in marine monitoring is part of the Green Fins code of conduct! 

What do you get out of it?

Deep within all of us is the child who is fascinated with the natural world. Tapping into a monitoring programme can illuminate your experience; shifting from looking at a pretty reef to seeing a million animals working in unison in a complex coral city. You could track other sightings of that whale shark or manta you identified and see its migration patterns, or start to learn how different animals are related to each other. In some cases you can even name them! It’s also an opportunity to learn new skills that can translate into your own work, even if it’s not in conservation! 

What does a dive shop get out of it?

If you’re running a dive or snorkel operation, consider supporting local programmes. This may be promoting a programme that your guests can do themselves, like submitting ID shots, or it can be training some of your staff for a monitoring programme. 

Don’t underestimate the value of having staff with in-depth marine knowledge. Not only will they be able speak knowledgeably to your guests about the local area and wildlife but they may feel more stewardship towards the local environment; helping you improve the environmental policies of your operation. 

It also gives your guests an option for something different and meaningful: an experience that more and more tourists are looking to have when they are travelling. Plus, through some programmes, you’ll be able to connect with some powerful networks: not only with other operators doing their bit but with academic and government individuals who are dealing with the data. These connections can be hugely valuable during a local environmental crisis that could affect your business. 

What to look out for?

Not all citizen science programmes are equal. If you’re going to commit time and effort into joining a programme, keep these questions in mind to ensure you’re putting your energy towards legitimate science and effective conservation. 

  • Can you collect data without harming the environment? Will you be trained in methods and skills to ensure you don’t cause damage to what you’re trying to protect? 
  • Are you provided with guidance or a code of conduct for collecting the data to ensure you aren’t stressing the animals you’re studying?
  • Who is receiving the data? What are they doing with it? Is the data being used to effect policy changes or update management plans? 

There are thousands of citizen science programmes out there. Below is a list of some popular global initiatives but make sure you look for national and local programmes too: 

Popular Global Citizen Science Initiatives 

Marine Life & Ecosystems

Megafauna

Marine threats


If you’re looking for a bit more purpose to your holiday or your business, taking part in citizen science might just be the right fit for you! Do you know of any more? We’d love to hear them in the comments below. 


Samantha Craven is Programmes Manager at The Reef-World Foundation: the charity which coordinates Green Fins internationally in partnership with the UN Environment Programme

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