Citizen science is a powerful tool for expanding the reach of scientific research, fostering public engagement with science, and addressing complex scientific questions that require extensive data collection. It promotes a sense of community involvement and empowers individuals to contribute meaningfully to scientific advancement. Data collected by citizen scientists contributes to new discoveries, addresses pressing environmental challenges, and informs important policy decisions.
Though citizen science projects date back as far as the 18th century, the practice gained momentum in the early 20th century with projects like the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900. The term "citizen science" itself was coined in the 1900s, and efforts like the National Audubon Society's Breeding Bird Survey (started in 1966) expanded the scope of citizen science in ornithology.
Some well-known initiatives include the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's eBird program, and NASA's Globe Observer program for Earth observations, but here on the Treasure Coast there are multiple projects underway specifically related to the Indian River Lagoon- a key environmental resource.
Embrace Your Inner Scientist
The Treasure Coast is rich in natural resources and biodiversity but is certainly not without its challenges. Over the last several years the Indian River Lagoon has seen alarming increases in toxic algal blooms, loss of seagrass and habitat, and a shocking manatee mortality event that is still not over. There has never been a more critical time for area residents to get involved because everyone is a stakeholder in the health of the lagoon. Fortunately, you don’t have to look long or far to find a meaningful way to contribute while flexing your curiosity and satiating your quest for knowledge. The treasure coast has many organizations with robust citizen science projects.
Be a Dolphin Spotter
FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute invites the public to contribute to dolphin research by participating in the land-based Dolphin Spotter citizen science project. Photo identification is a non-invasive, opportunistic technique that is used to collect information about wild dolphin populations. Like a fingerprint, dolphins can be identified by the unique pattern of nicks and notches on their dorsal fin. Photos submitted will complement the ongoing photo-ID research being conducted by the FAU Harbor Branch Marine Mammal Stranding and Population Assessment team.
Sightings are needed in areas like inlets, canals behind private residences, marinas, waterfront parks, and under bridges and causeways. To participate as a Dolphin Spotter, visit the website, fill out the registration form and watch a tutorial video. After registration, Spotters receive an email with sighting submission information. So far, the program has received over 150 sightings, leading to over 20 dolphin matches to the FAU Harbor Branch database.
Land-based citizen scientists can capture areas that traditional surveys don’t reach, while providing valuable insights on the day-to-day habitat use and behaviors of resident dolphin populations. These efforts play a critical role in understanding Florida’s wild dolphins and conserving this important species.
FAU Harbor branch also offers an enhanced boat tour experience. New for 2023, participants will have the opportunity to experience the lagoon like never before - as a marine scientist aboard a floating laboratory with state-of-the-art tools. Activities include interpreting real-time water quality data from the Indian River Lagoon Observatory Network, surveying underwater habitats with a remotely operated vehicle, and identifying wildlife of all sizes, from microscopic plankton to sharks, rays, manatees, and dolphins.
Fish, Collect, Test, and Garden
The Ocean Research & Conservation Association’s (ORCA) One Health Fish Monitoring project invites recreational anglers to participate by donating some of their catch. The project is designed to collect data related to the accumulation of toxins (naturally occurring) and toxicants (manmade) in fish living in the Indian River Lagoon and contributing waters including Lake Okeechobee, and canals.
ORCA’s Pollution Mapping program engages citizen scientists to participate in water quality monitoring. Participants are trained to perform the same monitoring methods used by ORCA Scientists, and will “adopt” a site within the Indian River Lagoon, or in any water body that influences the health of the lagoon, to test seasonally. Teams of Citizen Scientists work in the field and laboratory to collect and analyze samples. Commitment can range from simple water quality monitoring to performing the complete array of analyses completed by ORCA scientists for their Ecotoxicity projects.
ORCA also recruits waterfront homeowners to participate in native planting projects in its Land to Sea program. Buffered shorelines help minimize pollution entering the waterways. Planting native vegetation buffers along a seawall or shoreline filters out much of the sediment, nutrients, and other pollutants that are washed off from land from rain storms or irrigation water. This project partners with University of Florida horticulture extension agents and local native plant nurseries to design and install the plantings, and then participants monitor runoff before and after the installations to document the reduction in pollution entering the waterways.
This October will also mark six years for ORCA's "A Day in the Life of the Indian River Lagoon." This project brings together thousands of teachers, environmental experts, students and community volunteers to collect scientific data at various sites along the 156-mile stretch of the Lagoon – all on the same day! Volunteer citizen scientists use hands-on field techniques to measure chemical, physical, and biological parameters to determine how their local piece of the estuary fits into the larger ecosystem. Data such as, temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH, and nitrate and phosphate concentrations from all sampling locations are posted on the ADIL website. These data are available to the general public, including Indian River Lagoon decision makers.
ORCA is the he nation’s first technology-based marine conservation association founded by internationally renowned, deep-sea explorer Dr. Edith Widder.
Snorkel, Survey, and Sample
The Florida Oceanographic Society has some unique citizen science projects that include adults and teens. FOS has been monitoring and reporting on the water quality of the St. Lucie Estuary and the Indian River Lagoon for 20 years.
Volunteer citizen scientists are trained to record water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH, and water clarity on a weekly basis. The program has 47 active water quality monitoring sites across 10 zones in the SLE and IRL.
FOS also offers a fascinating summer camp experience for teens that incorporates a citizen science project. During the Teen Immersion Experience, youngsters from 13-16 learn to snorkel and conduct fish surveys in popular oceanside and lagoon snorkeling spots. They use reef.org surveys to collect data and report their findings back to the reef.org database, providing vital information for tracking fish populations in key areas.
Also worth noting is that FOS has a terrific coastal center featuring Stingray and Invertabrate Tanks, nature trails through a mangrove forest, and its famous 750,000-gallon outdoor "lagoon" where visitors can observe resident sea turtles, local species of sharks, and game fish. Guests can also explore the fascinating Ocean EcoCenter, a 5,000 square foot space that features 2,000 gallons of aquariums showcasing local fish and invertebrates, and interactive exhibits.
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