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Citizen Scientists

Posted on Feb 27, 2020 in Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance , March-April 2020 , Conservation

Contributed by Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance

This stretch of the Florida coast is home to the Choctawhatchee Bay, the rare coastal dune lakes, and miles of sugar-sand Gulf beaches. These natural features are a sanctuary for wildlife and humans alike. Whether you enjoy fishing or boating, waterfront living, wildlife watching, paddling, or just a cold beverage and a spectacular sunset view, there is no denying that our waterways are special. The Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) is an organization dedicated to ensuring that we are all able to enjoy these perks of South Walton living now and into the future.

Through CBA’s outreach programming and volunteer events like beach clean-ups and oyster reef and salt marsh restoration, locals and visitors alike can participate in education and experiences that empower them to take action to care for our shorelines, wetlands and waterways. Many of CBA’s activities recruit and train citizen scientists to help collect data about wildlife and water quality that will improve management of our natural resources.

What is a citizen scientist? Citizen science is the practice of public contribution to scientific knowledge through volunteer data collection and monitoring programs. Citizen scientists receive training and equipment as well as a well-earned sense of contribution to science, and in turn, they benefit small non-profits like CBA by increasing on-the-ground manpower.

“We have been able to learn so much background information about water quality in Walton County’s rare coastal dune lakes through the long-term efforts of our volunteer citizen scientists,” says CBA Director Alison McDowell. “Thanks to them, we can now tell you things like which lakes would be mostly likely to have bass, rather than blue crabs, based on the average salinity readings over the last 20 years, or which lakes show impacts of human development. The cost to monitor the 15 lakes monthly without citizen scientists would be huge—we wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

A citizen scientist inspects a spiny softshell turtle. Photo courtesy CBA

Recently, CBA has launched new opportunities for would-be citizen scientists to get involved and lend a hand. “Our water quality monitoring and oyster gardening citizen science programs are relatively high-commitment activities. Our new programs are more flexible, and they have an element of exploration and discovery that we hope will appeal to folks looking for a family- or leisure-time activity,” says CBA Monitoring Coordinator Jenna Testa.

The three new programs are all part of larger regional, national, or international data collection efforts, and participation locally means that our area will “get on the map” and be well-represented when looking at geographic distribution.

Nurdle Patrol is a Gulf of Mexico-wide study tracking nurdles, the plastic pellet which serves as raw material in the manufacturing of plastic products. Nurdles are washing up on Gulf Coast beaches by the millions, and information collected by citizen scientists will help to map and track the source.

eBird is the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project, with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year by eBirders around the world. eBird data document bird distribution, abundance, habitat use, and trends through a data checklist. eBird’s free mobile app allows offline data collection anywhere in the world, and the website provides many ways to explore and summarize your data and other observations from the global eBird community.

iNaturalist is a not-for-profit program generating millions of data points for biodiversity research by helping people learn what’s in their neighborhood. One of the world’s most popular nature apps, iNaturalist connects CBA local citizen scientists with a community of over 750,000 scientists and naturalists. By recording and sharing observations, CBA citizen scientists will provide scientific data for researching and protecting our local habitats.

If you are interested in exploring and connecting to nature, while giving back to the environment, you might be an excellent citizen scientist. Email cba@nwfsc.edu for details on how you contribute.

Plastic bits on the beach indicate a good place to do a nurdle patrol. Photo courtesy CBA