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Citizen scientists hit the classroom and the beach to study Puget Sound's intertidal zones

posted May 5, 2017, 2:44 PM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated May 5, 2017, 2:45 PM ]

By Eleanor Hines, Lead Scientist, Clean Water Program

This spring, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities is gearing up for our fifth year of intertidal surveys in the Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserves. 

On April 29-30, we hosted two citizen science trainings at Birch Bay State Park and Padilla Bay, each near one of the Aquatic Reserves where we perform our intertidal surveys. 

In all, more than 70 community members participated in these citizen science trainings, from college students to retired volunteers and even 4-year-old twins. These citizen scientists play an important role in protecting our marine species and habitats by contributing to scientific research for the health of the Puget Sound.

Citizen scientists in the classroom

First, the trainings covered the purpose of the intertidal surveys. We collect the data to gather a baseline of information, which can also help detect changes. In the case of a tragic event like an oil spill, this baseline could also help evaluate what is lost. 

Our intertidal surveys are part of a long-term monitoring program, so we don’t expect to be able to identify trends until the ten-year mark. So far, the data looks like it’s showing only natural variations, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Think of your favorite beach: Does it always look the same? 

The trainings also focus on beach elevation profiles to monitor the slope of the beach. This helps us identify if the slope changes, which would help us better understand where we might see changes elsewhere: in the organisms on the beach, sea level rise, or erosion from intense storm surges. We don’t know for sure, so that’s why we collect the information.

The main focus of intertidal survey trainings is how to study the abundance of organisms using quadrats. Citizen scientists learn how to identify groups of organisms and count them as a percentage of coverage or as an individual organism. This helps us understand how the population of organisms might change over time. 

During summer intertidal surveys, our lead naturalists will also conduct what we call species swaths — they look at a certain location on the beach and check off all the species in that area. This allows us to collect a comprehensive species list, while the quadrats tell us how much of each type of organisms is present.

Simplifying the study method

This year, we simplified the ways our citizen scientists use quadrats — to the great relief of many. After consulting with other scientists who lead citizen science efforts up and down the West Coast, we determined we can lump together certain species to make them easier to study. 

Fear not, this change doesn’t mean we’re losing data, but that we're gaining confidence in our data. In the past, when it a microscope was needed to accurately identify some species, we couldn't confidently say we were accurately IDing organisms without a microscope in the field.  By lumping our species, we have more confidence in our data.

We also mixed up the training this year to have a better balance of field and classroom time, alternating sections to try out in the field what was just learned in the classroom. Citizen scientists got to test out their newly learned skills for taking profile measurements and collecting data from quadrats. Our lead naturalists also got to show off their vast knowledge of the intertidal zone. 

At the end of each training, we gathered for team photos. In Padilla Bay, we gathered just as the rain came rolling in after a fine sunny day. It was perfect timing and perfect end to a great two days of training. 

What's next

This year, our intertidal surveys take place in May, June, July, and August. If you have completed intertidal survey training in past years and would like to volunteer again this summer, email eleanorh@re-sources.org.

Many stellar volunteers who participated in these intertidal survey trainings are part of our new North Sound Stewards program, where volunteers invest 50 hours per year helping scientists study ocean acidification, sea star wasting syndrome, forage fish habitat, and water quality. 

Participation in the program is full, but you can sign up on the waiting list if you want to get involved and we'll keep you in the loop about other citizen science opportunities.

Learn more about citizen science: re-sources.org/north-sound-stewards

Special thanks to our partners: Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committees, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northwest Straits Foundation, Skagit Marine Resources Committee, and the Coastal Volunteer Program.