Developing technological advancements allowing humanity to take advantage of the great array of resources available on the planet is one thing. Ensuring the preservation of these resources for future generations is another. From ensuring physical resources such as minerals from running out through recycling, to maintaining healthy populations of species humanity depends on for food, medicine, or plain inspiration through population dynamics, sustainability is one way or another interwoven with development and growth.
One of the key resources humanity depends on for food is the oceans’ fish stocks (see Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement). In realising the importance of some species to human health and global economy, stock assessments are carried out regularly to monitor fish populations; to see whether fishing quotas follow maximum sustainable yield (I.e. the maximum harvesting a population is able to withstand) and tweak fishing policies in order to protect vulnerable populations. A team of Australian ichthyologists found in 2010 that such policies had made the collection of data quite challenging and implemented an innovative citizen science program to achieve their research goals. In their newest paper they discuss results.
Taking things from the top: The team faced challenges trying to assess the status of three demersal species (species occurring near the seabed): snapper Chrysophrys auratus, West Australian dhufish Glaucosoma hebraicum and Baldchin groper Choerodon rubescen. The three species are important both in regards to recreational and commercial fishing, comprising of approximately 70% of the wholesale value of commercial fisheries of the Australian west coast and reeling in around £2.5 million. As a result these species have been closely monitored by government bodies to make informed policy decisions. However, assessment in 2006 revealed that the status of the populations of these species required a series of changes in the subsequent years to reduce harvesting efforts. Measures included a reduction of catchment by 50%, limitations in the areas fishing were allowed and the hours of fishing activity and introduction of special fishing licenses. Yet by taking measures to replenish fish stocks, accumulation of data also became more challenging as samples sourced from commercial fishing were greatly reduced.
To gain the necessary data, a citizen science project was launched called Send Us Your Skeletons (SUYS), in which recreational fishers did pretty much that, sending in skeletons of the fish they had caught. The researchers then extract data such as fish length, sex, reproductive development stage and otoliths (ear bones) which when dissected, may reveal fish age through the number of growth rings they have, just like trees.
The program produced results in increased involvement of recreational fishers on Australia’s west coast which is evident when examining the increase of people involved in the program and samples donated each year while simultaneously providing valuable data on spatial and temporal coverage of the species of interest (i.e. when and where the fish species occur). Additionally, the program reduced costs of stock assessment by 50-60%, and although economising is an achievement in itself, the assurance of its long term viability is also significant. SUYS also overcame challenges typically associated with samples provided by recreational fishers. By allowing donations from a variety of sources, the record had a well represented age and size structure. The record from recreational fisher donations were also superior compared to that obtained by commercial sampling, as recreational fishers were free of seasonal and spatial limitations.
Finally, the program identified that citizen science works and may improve the relationship between scientists, government officials and members of the public through raising awareness and providing opportunity for dialogue, before making important management decisions. Such programs invest in citizens’ education and provide tangible benefits to the public and the scientific community.
What other research areas may benefit from citizen science programs?