CITIZEN SCIENCE

by Todd Ramsey, Winter 2019

Photo by Eric Wagner, COASST staff
Photo by Eric Wagner, COASST staff

CITIZEN SCIENCE

by Todd Ramsey, Winter 2019

 

It all started out so innocently. We just wanted to pick up trash on the beach after a storm. Soon after that we discovered COASST.org (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team).  COASST is a University of Washington research project that utilizes citizen scientists (like us!) who are willing to commit to spending one day per month surveying a specific beach, collecting any foreign objects that they find and then completing a detailed report on what they collected. 

Photos by Eric Wagner, COASST staff

The COASST Marine Debris project doesn’t focus only on the identity of found objects; it is also concerned with impactwhat harm can this piece of trash do to wildlife and nearshore ecosystems? Does the debris look like something that a bird would normally eat, or could its shape present a harm to wildlife? I can’t forget that photo of a sea turtle with plastic six-pack rings around its neck. COASST also looks at sourcingwhere did this item come from? 

We gathered a small group of dedicated people who wanted to try their hand at “citizen science” and go out to the beach to collect data for this U.W. research project. Because the COASST project covers the entire west coast of the U.S., from southern California all the way up to the Aleutian Islands, it’s important that all teams collect data in a very specific manner for consistency. I quickly realized why I needed to spend six hours in class about collecting trash. We learned how important it is that all of us well-meaning beach surveyors report all of our data properly so that the folks back at the “U” can record it in a way that is understandable and accurate.  

Photo by Adelia Ritchie

Soon it was time to put it all into practice. In our case, the four of us had trained together, and we all lived in the same town so we came as a ready-made team. Our designated beach (Point No Point, in Hansville, Washington) is 1,500 meters long so we all get a good morning walk. COASST provides us with the tools that we need (measuring devices, marker flags, identification tags, report forms, and the like), so we pack up our backpacks and head on to our first stop. 

We had our choice of studying three or five specific locations on the beach, and I must admit that when we began, three seemed like plenty. Our pacer paced out to the first stop, and we set up a five-meter-wide rectangle that covered all the beach zones: from the surf, through the bare sand, the wrack (the band of seaweed), the wood (where all the logs and driftwood collect) and the vegetation (the “top” of the beach). Each zone was measured and recorded, and then we collected and tagged any debris within each zone for later identification. 

We found a lot of Styrofoam pieces that had been washed and wind-blown ashore, especially up in the wood zone. We also found plenty of cigarette butts and plastic wrappers. Inevitably we would come across something quite unexpected that made us wonder how it could have gotten there. Ahh, the mysteries of life on the beach!   

Photos by Eric Wagner, COASST staff
Point No Point Beach near Hansville, WA. Photo by Adelia Ritchie.

There were always inquisitive beach walkers and usually a friendly dog or two. Most of the time, the weather was kind to us, and we were able to finish our tasks without too much difficulty. Then we return to our local grill, spread a table cloth on the table, sort through our day’s haul, and enjoy a nice hot chocolate or other refreshing beverage—depending upon the temperature and time of day—and write up our report, characterizing every item we found by size, color, composition, labels, bar codes (if any), and so on. 

It is very enjoyable to spend some time on the beach with friends, and also gratifying to know we are contributing in our small way to the advancement of the science of studying our sea birds and their environment. Some of us think that science does matter.

Photo by Eric Wagner, COASST staff

Editor’s note: What does this have to do with birds?

Dr. Julia Parrish, founder of COASST.org, recognized the need for a seabird monitoring program that would generate baseline data to help assess patterns of seabird mortality due to natural and human-induced events. Without baseline data, she reasoned, they would only be able to speculate about causes of population change among marine bird species found in our nearshore waters.

COASST volunteers generate valuable program data by surveying for dead birds and by collecting, categorizing, and reporting on manmade debris found in their survey areas. Such debris might include artifacts that birds could confuse for food, like shiny objects or plastic bits washed up onshore. “Human-induced” events also include fuel spills, where bird feathers become oiled, rendering them unable to fly. Birds can also become fatally entangled in plastic webbing, fishnets, and other plastic debris, both onshore and drifting about in the sea.

Julia realized that a monitoring program in which scientists collaborated with coastal residents could generate vital information about North Pacific seabirds, while simultaneously giving participants the opportunity to voice their local expertise, engage in university science, and become a part of the science team.

Murre photos by Deborah Milton.
Todd Ramsey is a retired health care worker who is enjoying life in Hansville. He spends as much time as possible volunteering in his community and spoiling his grandchildren. His time spent with COASST activities allows him to keep in touch with the important field of science.  

Table of Contents, Issue #6, Winter 2019

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