Conservation & Science

Lisa Emanuelson: Citizen science keeps the Sanctuary healthy

Through September 2, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary host Big Blue Live – an unprecedented series of live natural history broadcasts from PBS and the BBC. Big Blue Live highlights the remarkable marine life that gathers in Monterey Bay each summer, and celebrates an ocean conservation success story of global significance. We’re publishing guest commentaries about conservation efforts that contribute to the health of the bay and our ocean planet. This comes from Lisa Emanuelson, who coordinates volunteer programs focused on protecting wildlife in the Sanctuary.

Lisa Emanuelson
Lisa Emanuelson

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1992, but the idea for a sanctuary came into being through the efforts of citizens along the shores of Monterey Bay and beyond. In truth, citizen action is the basis for many changes in our world.

Individuals are still contributing to positive change along the shores of Monterey Bay through their efforts to monitor and protect our oceans. These “citizen scientists” assist trained researchers in many ways, including by collecting water quality samples and data.

The Sanctuary offers many year-round volunteer opportunities, including its cadre of kayaking Team OCEAN ambassadors. It also hosts three annual citizen science water quality events: First Flush, Snapshot Day and Urban Watch. In each, teams of volunteers test water flowing into the sanctuary.

Team OCEAN volunteers venture out in kayaks as ambassadors and advocates for appropriate interactions with wildlife. Photo courtesy NOAA/Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Team OCEAN volunteers venture out in kayaks as ambassadors and advocates for appropriate interactions with wildlife. Photo courtesy NOAA/Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

To protect sensitive wildlife from disturbance, volunteers with Team OCEAN paddle the waters of the bay and Elkhorn Slough, chatting with people about how to interact with sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions and other local wildlife. They also share information about the sanctuary and marine protected areas with local residents and visitors alike.

Wildlife etiquette, and wildlife survival

While serving as sanctuary ambassadors, they alert people to signs that show sea otters or other wildlife are anxious about the proximity of people, kayaks, dogs or boats. It’s not just a matter of teaching wildlife etiquette. Like Hollywood stars overwhelmed by the paparazzi, sea otters in particular are constantly in demand. The energy they expend avoiding well-meaning kayakers, paddle boarders and boaters could compromise their health, or drive them from areas when they’re disturbed.

Sanctuary First Flush volunteers head out during stormy weather to take water quality samples.
Sanctuary First Flush volunteers head out during stormy weather to take water quality samples.

The first major rainstorm of the year carries with it a large volume of pollutants that run off city streets and straight into local waterways and – ultimately – out into the Sanctuary. A dedicated (some might say crazy!) group of volunteers heads out during the downpour to collect water samples – the First Flush – at storm drain outfalls. Data from First Flush is used by local cities to help them track whether their efforts to improve water quality are keeping pollutants from making it to the ocean.

Snapshot Day is a one-day water quality event that stretches along 300 miles of coastline, from Pacifica to Morro Bay. At some 150 sites on creeks and rivers that flow into the Sanctuary, volunteer teams take field measurements: of water temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and transparency/turbidity.

Testing the waters

 Additional samples are sent to labs to be tested for nitrate, phosphate and E. coli bacteria. Monitoring determines the health of each waterway, and whether its water quality is good enough to support cold-water fish. Data from Snapshot Day is used by local and state resource managers to determine if water bodies should be included on the state’s list of impaired waterways, as well as to identify which waterways are in need of restoration.

Water quality sampling on Snapshot Day paints a picture about the health of streams and rivers as they flow into the ocean.
Water quality sampling on Snapshot Day paints a picture about the health of streams and rivers as they flow into the ocean.

Urban Watch is a dry-weather monitoring program that focuses on common urban pollutants flowing into the sanctuary from city streets and neighborhoods through storm drains.  Urban Watch volunteers test water samples for detergents, ammonia, phosphate and chlorine. City officials use these data to determine where they need to reach out with more public education so their residents can better manage chemical use around their homes – and where the city needs to repair or replace portions of its storm drain and sanitary sewer network.

There are many other ways to become active as a citizen scientist, including observing wildlife on the bay, helping out at the Sanctuary Interpretation Center, or sharing wildlife observations with visitors along the shoreline. Together these efforts contribute to the health of the Sanctuary, and the creatures that call it home.

Learn more about volunteer opportunities with the Sanctuary.

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