Delving into data: citizen science for our seas

Intertidal survey at Hill Head © Jenny Mallinson

We take a look at the enormous impact of data in protecting our marine wildlife, from challenging harmful development to securing Marine Conservation Zones.

For many the word ‘data’ conjures visions of lab coats or memories of maths lessons, but these humble numbers have a truly impressive story to tell. Pick any of our recent achievements and data will have played a central role by shaping our approach or supporting our arguments, and even more impressively most of it will have come to us from someone just like you.

Like many conservation organisations, we rely on citizen science to achieve the quantity and variety of data we need to protect our wildlife. Almost all of our data collection involves members of the public, many of whom don’t have expertise in the field but are instead passionate volunteers from all walks of life. As it’s designed to be accessible, citizen science allows these people to make a real difference without the need for specialist knowledge, skills, or equipment.

When it comes to our marine wildlife, we use citizen science in many different ways. We gather seagrass bed and marine mammal sightings, monitor species on our beaches through intertidal surveys, and record underwater finds through the national dive initiative Seasearch. We then submit what we’ve gathered to various organisations and databases, like Natural England and Marine Recorder. Sharing our data like this is very important, as it gives everyone from researchers to policy officials a more complete picture of our current marine situation.

Surveying for seagrass on the Solent coast

Surveying for seagrass on the Solent coast © Lianne de Mello

Very often, sharing our data means that we can contribute to significant marine developments both locally and nationally. We were able to provide the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (SIFCA) with substantial data on our seagrass beds, which was used to support the introduction of two key byelaws in 2014. The first banned the use of bottom towed fishing gear, which can cause enormous damage, over seagrass beds and reef features within our European Marine Sites - a kind of Marine Protected Area.

The second byelaw prohibited the hand gathering of seafood, which can also cause damage and disturbance to animals and habitats, within protected seagrass beds. The legal status of activities like these can have a huge impact on our wildlife, so it’s vital that we’re able to present strong evidence of any negative effects.

Our species data has also been used to oppose new developments along our coastline. Developers usually have to perform an Environmental Impact Assessment before they receive planning permission, which gives us the chance to highlight potential damage to vulnerable species and habitats. In recent years our data on local seal populations and seagrass beds has been instrumental in defending several important locations.

Seal on rocks © Lynne Newton

Common seal © Lynne Newton

The work that citizen scientists do is invaluable, and at this crucial time for our marine life we need more people than ever to be our eyes and ears on the coast. With more citizen scientists we can reach more places more frequently, building evidence of their ecological value. We can investigate reports, both good and bad, more quickly and in greater depth. We can even act as the ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ of our shores, keeping a look out for harmful illegal activity.

So why not become a citizen scientist to help us and other organisations tackle the pressures on our seas? Here are some easy ways to help make a difference: