Tracking these migrations in the ocean is a great scientific challenge because most migratory marine species rarely if ever come to the surface where they can be tracked using satellites. Instead, researchers commonly use acoustic telemetry, attaching or implanting tags that transmit signals by sound to fixed arrays of receivers. This strategy is effective where receivers are present, but the costs of deploying and maintaining receivers is too great to cover all of the habitats that may be critical for species survival.
The Fish Finder Project, a collaboration between the Ocean Research Project and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), was conceived to help solve this problem by engaging the live-aboard sailing community to serve as citizen scientists. In the present case, boaters traverse coastlines and oceans, anchoring or docking in developed and remote locations alike. Fish and other marine species migrate along many of these same coastlines, visiting habitats that are critical as breeding and spawning sites, nurseries, foraging grounds, or migratory corridors. The co-location of boaters and marine species in coastal ecosystems makes our citizen scientists, the Fish Finders, effective at collecting data on marine species migrations that would otherwise be lost to science.
ORP currently has three citizen scientist projects geared towards recreational mariners, in varying phases of development. In 2013, the first Fish Finder Program completed a 30 day test and evaluation study in the Chesapeake Bay in coordination with the Smithsonian. This led to an 18 month Pilot Study with several volunteer recreational mariners who installed detection devices on their vessels that allowed them to identify the location and type of tagged species within the vicinity of their vessels. The data collected by sailors with these recording devices, cruising in several different regions ranging from the great lakes to the Bahamas to the Gulf of Mexico, revealed dozens of locations where the citizen scientist crews were able to monitor the activity of tagged marine species.
In another pilot study, four Fish Finders detected dozens of tagged fish along the US Atlantic coast including cownose rays, commercially important Striped Bass and Endangered Atlantic Sturgeon. Most of the tag detections occurred in places where there was no coverage by acoustic receivers deployed by the traditional scientific community. Additionally, a large number of tagged fish were detected in two locations not covered by researchers, highlighting the effectiveness of Fish Finders in identifying hotspots of fish habitat that could be prioritized for more intensive monitoring and possibly for conservation. Based on the success of this pilot study, the Fish Finder Program has the potential to make substantial contributions to the scientific understanding of fish migrations and essential fish habitats.
Similarly, citizen science offers significant potential for broadening research focusing on the impact of ocean acidification, which is a side effect of climate change. Few coastal resources are in place to monitor and map out the amount of carbon and pH at the surface of the ocean. ORP is currently working in collaboration with Dr. Miller of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to support the testing and evaluation of an ocean acidification sensor that can be deployed by sailboats underway. While in the Qaanaaq region of Greenland, ORP tested a prototype of this sensor and successfully collected ocean acidification data to help support further development of this new device. ORP will continue to test the instrument while collecting acidification data during its third Arctic expedition in 2018. Once the final instrument is developed, it could be broadly used to collect ocean acidification data worldwide, via widespread monitoring through coastal implementation and ORP’s citizen science program.
ORP intends to continue creating opportunities for the participation of citizen scientists in ocean research. This effort could greatly advance the depth of information citizen scientists can provide to the marine science community. The contribution of the data collected through detections made by citizen scientists would be difficult or impossible in the absence of this initiative, not to mention extremely costly. ORP’s work in this area is another example of its dedication to enabling marine research through the low cost, more efficient platforms offered by sailboats, while also connecting willing capable mariners with global ocean monitoring projects.