Thursday, May 23, 2013

THE CITIZEN SCIENCE BRIGADE and a SEASIDE UNDER FIRE


By Matt Schwartz, North Sound Baykeeper Intern


            What it means to be a citizen is shifting by the seaside. Largely because the seaside is under fire. ‘Oceans on Acid’, ‘Plastic Soup’ and ‘Sea Level Rising’ are familiar phrases buzzing around the media these days. Oil spills, collapsed fisheries, seabird die offs and the threat of more massive coastal development projects hardly round out the story. Nonetheless, if hope is an action that must be practiced, then alas, hope abounds on a rainy Saturday morning in Whatcom County! At Marine Park, thirty three local volunteers successfully completed field training as citizen scientists for the Aquatic Reserve Intertidal Monitoring Program. These volunteers will participate in important beach surveys throughout the summer at Cherry Point, Fidalgo Bay and Boulevard Park. Between Whatcom and Skagit counties, seventy two women and men are enlisted in this project. They will be equipped with the skills to document the intertidal zone at a scientifically sound level.  By measuring beach profiles and counting intertidal plants and animals year after year, this project aims to gauge changes to our shorelines and all of its creatures.  

“Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.”

-Alfred Lord Tennyson

            The intertidal is hopelessly romantic…

It is a musing enchantment that pulls many of us to the seashore. When you get to know her, the intertidal is quite the fanciful dreamer. Here are some basics: tides generally operate on semi-diurnal cycles in this part of the world, as commanded by the gravitational pull of the moon (and to a lesser extent, the sun). They take two deep breaths a day. Breathe in and water drains out from all of the arms and fingers of the sea that penetrate the land- hold- and breathe out to fill them back up. On cue, tides swell and heave their way up the beach, submerging every last mussel in its path. Salty spray quenches the lichens plastered on the bedrock outcrops in the high intertidal zone. Waves lap at the cobbles below. All this effort, only to about-face and the tide slinks away like a dog with its tail between its legs, leaving all of her creatures exposed. Thousands of subdued colors bend knee to the white cloud layer so heavy it barely holds itself up. Flip over a rock (gently)[1] and you might find any number of slinkers, crawlers, creepers or oozers. Whether you sit and stare, or stand up, face the water and close your eyes, the salty breeze runs its hands through your hair, beckoning.  As Annie Dillard once said, “The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out”.

Photo credit:  Doug Stark


…And hopelessly peculiar. 

Intertidal organisms usually take their time. The mossy chiton is a good example. Suctioned to a rock you might see this beautifully designed 8-plated shell with a chinstrap beard protecting a shriveled vienna sausage. This little sausage is the chiton’s foot and it remains virtually glued to rocks like a suction cup for its whole life. The Haida (southeast Alaska native) word for chiton is Çuunçuugiiga, ‘he who lays face down forever’. Keep looking and you will find creatures at all rates and states of flux. Peek under a rock and you might find a wriggling eel-like fish having a hyper-speed seizure (the ‘rockweed gunnel’). A purple shore crab scuttles hurriedly by on her way to somewhere clearly important and that thieving hairy hermit crab just outgrew its shell and helped himself to a new one. A bit higher up in the intertidal zone, crops of greenish-brown rockweed (fucus algae) shrivel as they slowly dehydrate, waiting ever so patiently for tide to return. Once it does, check right below the surface of the water. Those acorn barnacles have just opened up- frantically waving their ghostly little feet, catching particles of food brought in by the flooding tide. Picture thousands of organisms in motion: crawling, burrowing, seeping and worming their way around the sand, rocks and lapping waves. The intertidal zone is an infinite amusement park treasure hunt that could entertain us for hours- but there is work to be done… 


Enter the Citizen Science Brigade. 

The power of citizen science is rather infinite.  The bottom line: it’s cheap, it’s local, it’s potentially everywhere. Interpreting our natural world is a job for everyone.  With specific, focused training programs, ordinary citizens can gain the skills to observe planet earth in detail. Incredible discoveries and enormous pools of credible data can be gathered by the greater populace. Take the NASA citizen scientists who recently discovered the first known four star planet. Impressive. The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count has been a pillar of citizen science for 113 years.  Yes.
The scene at the Aquatic Reserve field training was chock full of measuring sticks, tide markers, clipboards and rain boots. Quadrats- handheld grid squares, made of PVC and string- are placed at random locations on the beach, where volunteers analyze any plants or animals that lie inside them and count anything alive.  “Citizen science is a great idea. More eyes for better monitoring and data. The old truism is ‘to know it is to love it’. Once people know how wonderful the natural world is, the more inclined they are to protect it,” says beach naturalist Marie Hitchman, who has been observing Cherry Point since 2000 and the San Juan/Gulf Islands by sailboat since 1968.
The local intertidal surveys gather a baseline of data that will help us understand how unique each beach really is. Taking measurements and vital signs of a particular shoreline can show how it responds to change over time and to different environmental conditions.  With a solid grasp on the health of a beach and all of her critters, it is possible to gauge transformations, should an oil spill, a restoration project, or an increasingly acidic ocean happen upon her.  The truth is that numbers talk. Credible quantitative data that spells out the health of a specific marine environment can warrant important decisions, funding and actions for that area[2]. Nonetheless, as a strong group-centered effort, citizen science embodies a spirit that speaks beyond the data sets. It taps into the heart of a community. John Stockman is a local high school science teacher and co-trainer for the intertidal project. He describes citizen science as “an excellent way to get people involved in a real project. The data can be very useful to recognize slow changes in ecosystems. But we must not forget that it is not just about the data; it is also about the researchers who have volunteered to collect the data.”
This brings it back to you- the volunteer, the donor, the backbone of “what have you done for your country, lately?”. If you spoke seastar you’d know- Pisaster ochraceous thanks you.


"Intertidal Biotic Monitoring at Cherry Point, Fidalgo Bay and Boulevard Park” is a joint project of RE-Sources for Sustainable Communities, the Marine Resources Committee, Washington Environmental Council, and the respective Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committees. It is complemented by the citizen science “Aquatic Reserve Bird Surveys” program.


[1] Tidepooling etiquette 101: if ever flipping over a rock do so gently. Roll the rock back over just as you found it.
[2] The Washington Department of Natural Resources and collaborating partners (see below) will be utilizing the data from this project and it will also be made available online to the public.

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