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Citizen Science and the Port Stephens Dolphin Census

Citizen Science and the Port Stephens Dolphin Census

By Iain Watt, Marine Parks Association and President EcoNetwork Port Stephens.

The Port Stephens dolphin census has not been held since pre-COVID, so re-introducing this will be welcome. It has particular advantage in engaging the local community with the local dolphin population, whether as a shore-based observer or boat-based.

Public participation in scientific research is becoming increasingly used for generating valued scientific outputs. This has been helped by the accessibility of technologies such as the mobile phones and social media platforms like Citizen science primarily collect observational data and provides support for research that requires many eyes or feet on the ground and/or when covering wide geographical area. But it also plays an important role in engaging the community and non-scientists in raising awareness of local environmental and ecological issues.

A citizen science project should address a specific question. A well defined project design can be developed to answer the question. This will include the need for and role of citizen scientists in the project. It will define the data collection protocol and data boundaries to maintain project focus, data quality assurance and control, and consider how the data collected will be analysed.

Data analysis usually requires some sort of institutional or professional input which can often come down to funding or partnerships. But, for example PhD students undertaking a citizen science approach to their studies will usually have sufficient personal interest to spend the time checking, organising, and analysing the data. This can be extremely arduous so there needs to be a clear imperative to drive this forward and generate an outcome, however, citizen scientists will need and should expect feedback from their efforts.

The average citizen scientist does not require any specific skills, but if a project requires specific skills such as species identification, the appropriate training is generally provided. An example of this is the Reef life Survey which engages divers in collecting data on marine biodiversity. But most citizen science projects aim to minimise the complexity and task loading on participants so to engage and retain as many participants as possible.

Bird watchers organisations and enthusiasts probably offer the best global overall examples of citizen science to date. The Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association (SOSSA) was established in 1994 in the Illawarra and continues to run field trips collecting data and banding the great Southern Ocean seabirds such as the Albatross. This data feeds directly into international protocol and has been responsible for numerous important discoveries about the ecology of these birds. Another example of long running coitize science is the Cape Solander Whale Migration Study off Sydney. This is one of Australia’s longest running citizen science humpback whale monitoring programmes, starting in 1997, it is estimated some 20,000 hours of observer time has been put into this project.

To ensure standard data collection protocols over time, training was provided for new observers by one lead observer from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, providing the project with the long-term professional support needed to ensure consistent data collection and reliable results. This is a shore-based project and is therefore a very cost-effective means of collecting data on whale populations. Cost effectiveness is an important feature of citizen science projects. Other marine citizen science projects in Australia and around the world include; coral reef monitoring, working in intertidal habitat and mangroves, fish monitoring to identify the southerly movement of fish along the coast due to climate change and shark and ray and turtle monitoring.

Useful links:

Port Stephens Bottlenose Dolphins Marine Parks Association

Collecting Dolphin Identification Photos – Marine Parks Association