Conservation & Science

Playing your part through citizen science

On Earth Day,  Monterey Bay Aquarium staff and volunteers joined in March for Science events along with tens of thousands of people in more than 600 cities around the world. With representatives at marches in seven cities across the U.S. and Europe, the Aquarium stood up for one of our founding principles: that evidence-based science should drive conservation action.

From recording and sharing wildlife observations to reporting stranded sea otters, there are many ways to contribute as a citizen scientist.

It’s clear that the March for Science isn’t just about scientists, and it’s more than a one-day phenomenon. People of all ages and backgrounds participated, because you don’t have to be a trained scientist to appreciate the benefits science offers—or to contribute to the scientific process.

Much of the science taking place at the Aquarium, from saving sea otters to tracking white sharks, relies on dedicated citizens quite literally taking science into their own hands. Thanks to our increasingly connected society, opportunities abound for everyone from middle school students to retired teachers to participate in citizen science at the Aquarium—and beyond. Here are a few of the many ways you can become a citizen scientist.

Turtle data (nearly) lost at sea

Not long ago, Aquarium Director of Science Kyle Van Houtan was deployed at the remote Rose Atoll in American Samoa studying adult nesting sea turtles. During nesting season, females crawl onto the beach to lay their eggs; 45 days later hordes of tiny baby turtles hatch and scamper into the waves. Because baby turtles are too small to be tagged, Kyle placed transmitters into the sea alongside the hatchlings. Solar-powered and bobbing at the surface, transmitters would ride the same currents as the hatchlings and help create a dispersal map showing where the hatchlings go.

Director of Science Kyle Van Houtan’s sea turtle conservation research benefited from the timely help of an interested sailor in Fiji.

As is sometimes the case with new technology, Kyle and his team had a couple technical hiccups to work through. After a few months of receiving data from the transmitters, Kyle noticed that one transmitter appeared to go rogue.

“We had one transmitter end up in a remote coral atoll in northeast Fiji,” explains Kyle. “It completely stopped moving and quit transmitting data—and we didn’t know why.”

Each of the transmitters was outfitted with a label noting Kyle’s name and contact information. So when a yacht’s deckhand found the transmitter on an uninhabited beach, it was no trouble at all for him to FedEx the missing transmitter back to Kyle in Hawaii. Turns out the transmitter had gotten trapped in debris on the beach, and its solar panel was obstructed, unable to charge or send any information.

“If it weren’t for that one person out there in the middle of the Pacific, we would never have seen the transmitter again,” says Kyle.

In the realm of citizen science, one person can make all the difference in the world.

Sea otters that end up in our rescue and rehabilitation program are often first reported by people who find them stranded on the beach. Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder.

Sea otter hotline

Citizen science connects people and data with researchers who can turn that raw material into helpful information to improve our world. We see this in real time with the Sea Otter Stranding Network, a California partnership managed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that works to report and process dead otters and care for live-stranded otters. The Aquarium plays a significant role in the rehabilitation of live stranded otters through our surrogacy program, but to find out about otters in need—or dead otters that need to be picked up—we and our colleagues rely on citizens calling in to report the location and status of otters. After that, teams can jump into action. USGS outlines specific procedures for what to do, including how many pictures to take and what phone number to call if you happen to find a dead or live sea otter.

“Most of the time, that very first call alerting us to an injured, sick or dead otter comes from someone who happens to spot the animal before we do,” explains Andy Johnson, our sea otter research and conservation manager. “As much as we try, we can’t be everywhere. So the people who call us are essential to sea otter conservation.”

For live-stranded sea otters, citizen scientists are often the messengers between sea otters and first responders such as the Aquarium and The Marine Mammal Center.

Chuck Farwell, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s tuna research and conservation program manager, gets ready to release a tagged Pacific bluefin tuna. Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Ethan Estess

A tuna treasure hunt

Every year the Aquarium’s tuna research teams head to Japan to tag Pacific bluefin tuna, a vital ocean predator so commercially prized that Pacific populations are down to about three percent of their historic numbers due to overfishing.

To better understand tuna migrations and physiology, Aquarium scientists capture and release Pacific bluefin tuna. We outfit the tuna with two kinds of electronic tags: pop-up satellite tags and archival tags. Pop-up tags gather information about depth and water temperatures in which the tuna travel, and their location as they migrate. Selected and condensed data are sent via satellite from the tag to a ground relay station.

The tags we use to track Pacific bluefin tuna. Often, we only get data back from the tags when they’re found by fishermen or beachcombers.

The only way we can retrieve all the data is if we get the tags back in good condition. The Aquarium and a few partner institutions encourage people to return the tags by offering rewards—sometimes up to $500 for a single tag.

“The tag reward system has been almost too successful,” says Chuck Farwell, our senior tuna research scientist. “Sometimes we deploy a tag and the very next day a fisherman is calling asking for his reward.”

Ideally, the tags stay with the tunas for as long as possible to maximize data collection. So far the Aquarium has retrieved about 350 tags from a total of 600 we’ve deployed.

“That rate of return is remarkable,” explains Chuck. “Especially because once pop-up tags come off the animal they are subject to currents and can end up anywhere in the world. It’s really neat when someone has a chance to make a bit of money and contribute to our tuna research.”

Our tuna research teams depend on commercial fisherman and everyday beachcombers from around the globe to close the loop on our work to conserve Pacific bluefin tuna.

What’s on your plate?

Holding what appears to be a stone bathroom tile, School Programs Assistant Manager Pamela Wade attaches the dark, square plate to string, then to a brick anchor. She carefully lowers it into the waters of Monterey Harbor.

Pamela Wade with our school programs team gets ready to put a stone plate in Monterey Harbor for a citizen science project. Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Katy Scott

Suspended there for three months at a time, the plate and others like it become the home for a range of invertebrate animals: tunicates, sponges, anemones and tube worms. Eventually, middle schoolers who are part of our Student Oceanography Club will analyze and count the species on each plate and help compile data that scientists can use to study invasive species in marine ecosystems.

“Animals in the bay are always looking for open real estate, so these plates are a highly coveted spot,” says Pamela.

Pamela completed her master of science degree studying the relationship between invasive species and oysters in Elkhorn Slough, and she hoped to bring hands-on science to students at the Aquarium. After a series of fortuitous connections, she ended up deploying plates in the harbor on behalf of the Smithsonian Plate Watch program, a collective of citizen scientists dedicated to recording sessile marine species that permanently attach to suspended square plates.

After three months in the water, the plate (and its brick anchor) are covered with marine life.

By working with this network of plate watchers, Pamela and her colleague, Digital Learning Manager Katy Scott, are able to offer middle school students the chance to actively contribute to much-needed scientific inquiry.

“Through this citizen science program, we not only teach students about the scientific process, but also empower them to understand why science is important and how they personally can participate in marine conservation,” explains Pamela.

All the data the students collect and analyze—the number of native species, invasive species, and the date and times the plates are deployed and retrieved—are uploaded to a Smithsonian database accessible to scientists all over the world.

We hope to create new citizen science opportunities in the future—opportunities where we’ll need your help and participation. There are myriad ways to become a citizen scientist, no matter where you live or what aspect of the natural world appeals to you. Dive in and give it a try!

—Athena Copenhaver

Learn about other citizen science opportunities.

4 thoughts on “Playing your part through citizen science”

  1. Are there any projects to do whale, shark or other wildlife conservation by tracking them by flying drones over the bay or Elkhorn Slough?


  2. Do you have films for elementary school children that we could use to educate them about pollution and what they can do about it with their teachers?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: