Citizen Science

By Bill Gleason

One of the best aspects of my job is meeting other divers; sometimes in places as common as Key Largo, Florida and Monterey, California and others as remote as Papua New Guinea's Bismarck Sea. Divers' opinions, on a variety of issues and destinations, help shape future issues of SKIN DIVER and provide the staff with direct reader feedback on the diving world.

Marine conservation comes up frequently in those conversations. I find nearly all divers feel passionately about the ongoing degradation of the marine environment. And, this passion seems to grow with each dive. The more we learn about the oceans and waterways of the world, the more we realize how badly they suffer from our ecological indifference. Overfishing, pollution and degradation of basic water quality all impact the oceans negatively but these issues are often so huge, pervasive and complex the solutions seem almost more than we can handle.

What's a diver to do? Well, the first step (which most of us have taken) is admitting to the seriousness of the problems. Second, we should learn as much about the problems as we can. Third, we need to realize we are not alone; there are literally millions of people who feel the same way! After this, direct action is the next logical step. Hence the term, Citizen Science, was coined. This is simply regular folks getting involved as volunteers in a variety of projects. In addition to their volunteer efforts, the organizations also make contributions to the scientific world; adding to the knowledge currently on hand about the oceans.

Getting involved can take many different forms. You can support local and national organizations that are working to eliminate the sources of water degradation by joining. Writing a check for $15 to $25 is often all it takes.

On the next level, direct participation in these organizations is a tremendous way to help solve the problems. Your contribution of time, for many the most valuable gift they have to offer, helps these primarily volunteer organizations accomplish many goals they otherwise would have to forego.

Do Both!

It does get a little difficult trying to figure out which organization you might select. In any given month, SKIN DIVER receives up to 20 solicitations from different environmental organizations. I truly wish we had the resources to fund and support each and every one of them. Frankly, we don't. As a matter of fact, we rarely have the time to check out new organizations and projects to determine their benefits to the marine environment. For the average diver, the array of organizations claiming to have the unique solution to marine environmental problems can be bewildering.

There are two organizations we fully support and have worked with for several years. They have unique criteria to set them apart from the other organizations doing environmental work. Both are also involved with Citizen Science or, in this case, Diver Science. They are REEF and the Center for Marine Conservation. Both organizations use volunteer divers to participate in ongoing projects that help the environment and add knowledge to the scientific world. We feel divers can make huge individual contributions to both organizations doing something they do best: diving.

REEF stands for Reef Environmental Education Foundation, founded in 1991, and consists of divers who count fish populations. The data they collect is used to measure species biodiversity (a key element in measuring the health of any ecosystem) and species abundancy (measuring the health of a particular area within an ecosystem).

Now this may sound a little too much like Citizen Science but I'd like to reassure you that's not the case. Any diver or snorkeler can participate in REEF projects. They have an incredible staff that also spends a great deal of time helping divers learn all about fish; from basic identification through to the advanced stuff. And, I can also reassure you that fieldwork with REEF is not a dull, scientific chore. It's diving, it's fun and it helps make a difference!

The Center for Marine Conservation (CMC) is best known in the diving world for its sponsorship of the International U/W Cleanups (the largest event in the diving world) held each September. This year, the organization (along with co-sponsors PADI and SKIN DIVER) are looking for volunteers to become Trash Captains and organize a cleanup (or a mini cleanup) in their area. Last year we set a record, with all 50 states participating. We would like to do even better this year. So, if you've been planning on doing a cleanup but haven't gotten around to it, this is the year for action.

On the surface, cleanups don't seem to fit the bill of Citizen Science. Environmentally cool, yes, but science? Yes! CMC collects the information from cleanups around the world and uses the data to fight marine pollution and debris. They have a great track record of success! They also have mounted major campaigns against overfishing, protection of shark resources (they are a little lonely with this one but it's growing) and basic water quality issues.

Both organizations need our help. I'll close with a gentle push in the direction of Citizen Science. The government, which used to take care of these things, doesn't anymore. Budget cuts, etc., have dropped the funding of marine related projects to an all time low. If citizens don't take up the slack, it's just not going to get done. And that, friends, spells danger for the oceans and waterways around the world! Please give this your most thoughtful consideration. Thanks!