With a keen eye and a little bit of training, a walk on your favorite beach can quickly turn into an opportunity to protect it. Two citizen science volunteers, Margarette Grant and Margaret Santamaria, recently used skills they gained through the North Sound Stewards program to organize a beach cleanup, removing 2,000 pounds of trash at Drayton Beach (and dozens of tires). Not long after, on a separate beach habitat survey, they discovered an invasive green crab — a voracious predator from Europe that could upturn tidal ecosystems if enough of them repopulate in Puget Sound.
They knew the right officials to call about trash building up on beaches. They knew the telltale signs of a dangerous species that’s become a growing concern in Whatcom County.
As Margarette and Margaret will tell you, what you learn when you help with citizen science projects doesn’t disappear when you leave a Saturday survey with the full-time scientists. Our volunteers are vital observers of the Salish Sea’s health any time they’re near the water.
We asked Margarette and Margaret a few questions about their experiences doing volunteer science, and how anyone who feels a special connection to Northwest Washington’s cherished shorelines can be a part of protecting them.
What all citizen science programs are you both part of?
Margaret Santamaria (MS): I do intertidal surveys, Green Crab Surveys and work with the COASST program
Margarette Grant (MG): Marine bird surveys, intertidal, Green Crab, and COASST. I’ve been along for a couple of Forage fish and kelp bed surveys too.
What got you interested in volunteering in the first place?
MS: I was recently retired and looking for opportunities to volunteer. I saw a request for volunteers with science background in the Cascadia Weekly and signed up for Intertidal Surveys.
MG: I just wanted to learn more about the marine life around here. Buying property in 2008 near Drayton Harbor had a big influence, since my house is across the street from the bay and next to a parking lot for public access (Dakota Creek Kayak Trail).
Why do you continue to volunteer, year after year?
MS: I enjoy learning new things from all the other kinds of people who come out and enjoy the outdoors. I believe that gathering the data is important. We need to better understand the current state and trends of Salish Sea habitats. I also enjoy the social side of meeting up for a survey!
MG: I like being around people with a common interest in keeping our environment healthy, and who have an active lifestyle. One more way to be outdoors!
How has citizen science changed how you view beaches (or any outdoor ecosystem)?
MG: Walking the beach is much more interesting now that I know more. I have replaced the lawn in my yard with native plants, and I love seeing some of the same plants on the beach, or in the woods and mountains that are in my backyard. I am also a land steward for two properties upstream Drayton Harbor that both have creeks flowing into the harbor. I enjoy looking for salmon and the fry in the creeks. I’m learning to recognize some of the animal tracks and watch for them when walking the beach. Overall, I have a better understanding of the ecosystems near where I live.
MS: Beaches and marine life here are very different from the Gulf of Mexico coast that I am more familiar with. It is important to understand the impact of non-native species to the native environment. I’ve always respected beach environments, and have been especially aware of human impact, but I have a new awareness of how invasive species harm these systems.
When did you first notice the trash before organizing the August 12th cleanup? And what surprised you the most?
MG: I first noticed the trash when I did the first COASST survey in September 2018. I started picking up stuff, then quickly realized there was much more than one person could handle — even if I cleaned a bag every month. This beach called for a work party, but I wasn’t sure where to start, so I called some of the folks I knew through my citizen science work and they connected me with a Department of Natural Resources Conservation Corps cleanup crew. Many of my neighbors came down and helped too!
MS: I was most surprised by the amount of large trash on the beach. A washing machine – really! I was amazed at the efficiency of the DNR crew.
M Grant: Yes! Some of the stuff has been there for a long time, maybe 20-40+ years. It was more common years ago for people to put their trash in marine water. We now know how harmful this practice is to water quality and marine life. The BIG surprise was several tires that were new, with logos clearly visible and great tread. I’ve knocked on every door in this block and know the homeowners have capacity to recycle or take such things to the dump, so why does someone put their unwanted tires on the beach?
Describe how it felt to have neighbors and even the DNR respond to the need
MS: It felt fantastic to have everyone pitch in and make a difference.
MG: This was one of the best days in 2019 for me! I didn’t know that DNR was staffed to do such work. I learned a lot from Kristian Tollefson (DNR marine debris removal specialist) and am pleased to keep him in mind for future cleanups. The Conservation Corps crew are inspiring to watch in action.
What did you hear from folks who showed up?
MS: I heard how wonderful it was to get this beach cleaned up.
MG: One of the neighbors expressed how much she had learned through this experience, and that she spoke with the other neighbor (who she hadn’t met before) about future cleanups. That was my hope: that people who live next to the beach learn how to be responsible to this marine gem and start to build a neighborhood community around that protection, and each other.
What would you say to someone who likes the beach, but doesn’t really know that it’s under threat from human impact and that they can help?
MS: I would invite them to join in, everyone can make a difference.
MG: Every little thing we do to make change in our own behavior makes a difference. When possible, get involved to help change governmental policy.
Describe how you came across the crab and what that felt like.
MS: I was in disbelief. I was eager to look at reference sheets to validate our suspicions. I often pick up crabs to ensure they are not the invasive green crab. Seeing the video during training on how destructive these crabs are to the embankments and native crabs left quite an impression. I am sad to find one in our area.
MG: Doubt at first, then my rosy colored view of the world turned real. One more sign of how interconnected the globe is and how we need to increase awareness that it’s a small world, and what I do here matters there.