Citizen science on the North Sea under the microscope | Flanders Marine Institute

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Citizen science on the North Sea under the microscope

Added on 2020-12-09
The number of projects involving citizen scientists in the North Sea area has increased significantly in recent years. No fewer than 127 marine citizen science initiatives had the North Sea as their study area. Almost half of the initiatives focus on the investigation and follow-up of one or more plant or animal species. But many projects also zoom in on marine litter. This shows the first inventory and analysis of all marine citizen science initiatives in the North Sea area.

(Photo: © VLIZ/Decombel)

Considering the vastness and the attraction of the ocean and the world’s coastlines, marine and coastal citizen science is a highly recommendable tool for the purpose of science and awareness. In the meantime, marine and coastal citizen science can contribute significantly towards a more ocean literate population by creating awareness on the enormous importance of and dependency on the ocean for our wellbeing. But which marine citizen science initiatives exist? What do they investigate? And who are the organisers?

In a new policy informing brief, the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ), in close cooperation with the Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences (Leeuwarden, the Netherlands), thoroughly reviews and analyses 127 marine citizen science. Moreover, they formulate some recommendations for policy makers.

The brief shows that almost half of the North Sea Citizen science projects deal with the study of plant or animal ‘species’. They follow the distribution or abundance of one or more species, or gather information about population changes (migration patterns, behaviour). Most wanted are marine mammals (28%), fish (20%) and birds (20%). Another 17% of the projects deal with ‘pollution’, such as marine litter or oiling in seabirds. Some 16% have a more general ‘biodiversity’ focus. The other categories (‘Ecology’, ‘Fisheries’, ‘Environmental’ and ‘Archaeology’) are less common. Undoubtedly, there is still a big untapped potential for marine and coastal citizen science initiatives in the non-biological sciences (geology, archaeology, history, coastal engineering, maritime technology, etc.).

Apart from the variation in the scope of the research, citizen Science projects in the North Sea area are the playing field of a variety of organisations (charities and foundations, governmental organisations, research institutes, non-governmental organisations, partnerships or individuals). NGOs are the major contributors to North Sea citizen science initiatives, research institutes are second. Overall, the analysis displays a mixed pattern in what organisations aim for. Government organisations prefer projects that draw attention to important policy issues, research institutes invest most in ‘descriptive’ initiatives, whereas NGOs have a slight preference for initiatives in which monitoring and evaluation is crucial.

Regarding the level of participation, there is certainly scope for growth compared to what is at stake today. The higher the level of participation, the more effort needed from the citizen scientists (and from the organisers) and the less projects you will find. Crowdsourcing, which requires no knowledge on the subject, is the most frequently used method (69%), whereas extreme citizen science, which motivates non-professionals to participate in all steps of research (problem definition, data collection, analysis and results), is still relatively rare.

From 1960 onwards, a slow increase in new projects is noted, turning into an exponential growth after 1990. Particularly from 2010 onwards, there is a marked increase in the number of new North Sea citizen science initiatives, illustrating the increasing recognition of the potential of the ocean and coasts for these purposes.

The initiators conclude that although their study shows an interesting and growing number and variety of marine citizen science projects in the North Sea area, citizen science in the marine field is still lagging behind what is happening in terrestrial and freshwater areas. This is partly because there is no comprehensive database, no specific strategy and no existing platforms with a focus on the marine realm. They plea for additional incentives, including seed money, in order to create a wide range of marine citizen science projects and initiatives, from easy, well-attended beach-based reporting of sightings to more complex ‘extreme’ forms of citizen science. A well-designed strategy could lead towards a more diverse, more accessible and highly desirable spectrum of marine citizen science initiatives in Europe.


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