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The Power of Citizens as Scientists

Jun 22, 2016
2016 Issue 1

There is tremendous potential in engaging the public to help gather data for science and management. Known as citizen science, efforts to engage ‘non-scientists’ in data collection around the nation and world have highlighted the important utility of crowdsourcing information.

Since 2002, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society have led eBird, a program that allows bird enthusiasts to share their observations. Using eBird, citizen scientists around the world have helped create an impressive database of over 9.5 million observations. These observations have provided a wealth of information on bird populations, detailing abundances and distributions both spatially and temporally.

The recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan is another poignant example of citizen science in use, highlighting the power and impact that citizen scientists can have. After their concerns over water quality were continually dismissed by officials, Flint residents teamed up with students and professors at Virginia Tech to create the Flint Water Study. The Flint Water Study empowered citizens to begin taking water samples and testing the quality. The results of the study led to state and federal officials finally taking action to address the water crisis in Flint.

As the utility of citizen science becomes increasingly evident, organizations and individuals across sectors are taking notice, from the federal government (see to nonprofits. GMRI’s Vital Signs program engages middle school students in a statewide effort to address invasive species. Through an online network of scientists, citizens, and peers, students use scientific tools to explore compelling research questions and collect data documenting native species and habitats vulnerable to invasive species.

In fisheries, we are beginning to use citizen science as a tool more and more by having fishermen collect data crucial to science and management. For instance, in Florida, managers use catch data recorded by private anglers via phone applications to better understand discards in the snook and gamefish fishery. 

Similarly, the Snap a Striper program, a collaborative effort between GMRI and the Coastal Conservation Association Maine chapter, uses photos and data collected by local anglers to help scientists gain a better understanding of the native spawning population of striped bass. GMRI scientists use photos, as well otoliths (fish ear bones), to determine the origin of each fish, important information that can help improve management of the fishery.

Most recently, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has begun efforts to develop a citizen science program in the region. Recognizing the need and desire to address scientific uncertainties with increased and more timely data, the Council began efforts by hosting the Citizen Science Program Design Workshop in January. The workshop aimed to generate recommendations for the structure and development of a fishery citizen science program for the South Atlantic, which would provide a framework to incorporate fishermen data and observations into science and management.

As discussed throughout the South Atlantic workshop, there are as many challenges as there are benefits to incorporating citizen science into fisheries science and management. Ensuring that data is verifiable and statistically significant is a tough obstacle. However, as we deal with climate change and move towards systems like ecosystem-based management, increased and more timely data will become increasingly crucial for fisheries management—harnessing the knowledge and experience of fishermen as citizen scientists is a promising solution.