Friday, September 3, 2010

The Power of Citizen Science

By Monica, Program Coordinator

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Port Townsend Marine Science Center Plastics Summit. The Center is conducting a study to assess the amount plastics in Puget Sound and to determine its potential sources. The data for this study (plastics found on Puget Sound shorelines of every size and type) is being collected by volunteers. The purpose of the Summit was to share the results of the analysis of this data to date with those volunteers. The approximately 100 people in attendance had sifted through sand and other natural shoreline substances to extract the tiniest pieces of plastic (called micro-plastics), sorted it all by type and size, weighed and counted the pieces – an excruciating task it seemed to me.

The results of the data collection and analysis were interesting and eye-opening to say the least. Plastic never decomposes – it is forever – but it does break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time making it even easier to enter the food web and more difficult to eradicate. But this summit highlighted something even more significant: the power of citizen science. The attendees (the volunteers who had seen it first-hand, put their hands on those tiny pieces of plastic, counted and weighed it) were so engaged and passionate about turning the tide on our human impacts to the environment. They totally “get it”. They were looking for ways to change their own behavior and advocating for others to do the same.

We, too, are trying to create this same level of engagement with all participants who sail aboard the Adventuress. We do not want it to be a one-time event where awareness peaks while on board then wanes after participants return to their homes and busy lifestyles. Connecting them to citizen science efforts may just be the ticket to keep that level of engagement long after they leave the ship. While on shore excursions, we now take time to explore the high tide line of the beach looking for micro plastics. We find them everywhere.

We also take water samples and submit them to Sound Citizens to be analyzed for a multitude of “contaminants” including cinnamon, thyme, vanilla and other spices. The mission of Sound Citizens is to demonstrate how we impact the quality of water without alienating people. Seeing spikes of thyme and cinnamon during the Holiday season and vanilla during the summer (while folks are eating a lot of ice cream) demonstrates the point without turning people off. Similar efforts that focus on toxic chemicals such as mercury, PCB’s, etc. can turn people off. It is easy to relate to spices and see how what we consume ends up in the water. Sound Citizens shares their sample analysis on their website so that everyone can follow the unfolding story from their work.

This summer, we have been taking plankton samples for the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs where they are studying and establishing a baseline of the diversity of phytoplankton in the waters around the San Juan Islands. We routinely take plankton samples using a 500 micron net and analyze them under a microscope to create awareness and appreciation for some of the smallest living things in the Sound. But taking samples for Friday Harbor labs using a 35 micron net creates a whole new awareness (the volume and diversity of the phytoplankton) and connects participants to “real science” which hopefully will have a more long-lasting impact.

We have a long-standing partnership with People for Puget Sound, an organization that launches and oversees many community-sponsored environmental projects throughout Puget Sound. This is one organization that participants can turn to after they leave the ship to find other ways to continue their personal journey of awareness and improved stewardship of the Sound. We also encourage participants to look for other local organizations within their communities where they can get involved. The synergy derived from local, group efforts allows us to leverage our individual efforts and keeps the momentum building.

We recognize the impact of citizen science on helping people “see” the need for change. We are proud to partner with these organizations and applaud their efforts in reaching out to communities to create greater awareness and involvement.

Port Townsend Marine Science Center
Sound Citizens
UW Friday Harbor Labs
People For Puget Sound

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