The power of citizen science

Author // Lucy Babey Categories // Survey & Sightings News

The power of citizen science

Citizen science involves members of the general public in the collection of scientific data to help inform and improve the conservation of our marine spaces.

At ORCA we use citizen science in our ongoing mission to improve the monitoring and protection of cetaceans in UK and European waters. But by getting members of the public to volunteer for us, we’re not just helping to save whales and dolphins – we’re also giving people from all walks of life the opportunity to be close to these amazing animals in the wild, whilst raising their awareness and collecting vital information that helps us work towards solving the problems these animals face.

Each year we run Marine Mammal Surveyor training courses that teach members of the public everything they need to know to be a citizen scientist. These one day courses take place all over the UK and give participants the skills they need to identify and record whales, dolphins and porpoise during offshore surveys. As well as learning about the species encountered in European waters and how to interpret their behaviour, delegates also leave the course understanding ORCA’s distance sampling survey protocol.  This protocol is used on all our ferry surveys, and resultant data are high-quality, contributing to EU-level conservation decisions. Once they have attended a course, ORCA Marine Mammal Surveyors can take an active role in marine conservation and apply to go on surveys to collect vital data and monitor cetaceans in the UK, Europe and beyond. The data which they collect helps to inform policy and legislation, to improve the conservation of our marine space.

A research paper has just been published, which ORCA contributed to, that looks at the power of citizen science in the marine environment and how citizen science can promote change. The paper discusses how citizen scientists can help marine conservation and how people perceive it to promote change. As part of the research, ORCA were interviewed and asked a series of questions focusing on Citizen Science within the organisation, as well as project objectives, their development and potential connection to social license.  

‘It comes back to the simple thing of bridging the gap and making them feel valued and having an important role in marine conservation, which is what citizen science does, it gives them that buy-in.’

The research supports a growing need for the development of marine citizen science as a crucial part of achieving engagement, ocean literacy and marine citizenship. The findings of the paper show that citizen science can promote change by improving people’s awareness of the ocean and the threats that face animals living in it. It demonstrates that marine citizen science has huge potential to achieve and develop change and awareness for marine conservation the UK, Europe and beyond. It also allows us to provide opportunities for people from all walks of life to take part in the collection of vital data and research.

In marine conservation, citizen science is an important platform which connects the public to our oceans, but it should not be expected that volunteers and members of the public will immediately support organisations that are doing this work. Promoting change requires participants to be engaged and a relationship to be developed through education and information sharing. 

Public awareness and engagement is crucial for the conservation of marine spaces, understanding and social license and through citizen science we can achieve this in a positive way, to encourage members of the public to protect our oceans.