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Non-scientists Collect Key Conservation Information About Seabirds

citizen-science, COASST, coastal ecology
COASST surveyors examine a Northern Fulmar, a seabird. (Image credit: Courtesy of COASST)

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

If you care about the ecology of U.S. beaches and coastal waters, consider volunteering with the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team. COASST organizes citizens of coastal communities to help scientists monitor beached seabirds in the North Pacific beaches of northern California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Information about beached birds collected by COASST provides revealing insights into overall coastal ecological health of surveyed regions.

Based at the University of Washington, the program is partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

Serious Research

COASST volunteers collect data on the beach-cast carcasses of marine birds, including information about resident and migrant species; changes in mortality rates; levels of chronic oiling; incidence of entanglement with fishing gear; and when possible, causes of death. Verification by experts has validated the accuracy of COASST volunteer data.

COASST data helps scientists establish baseline patterns of beached bird mortality — information they need to identify the impacts on birds of phenomena such as harmful algal blooms, oil spills, climate change and fishing.

Findings may assist natural resource managers and advance basic science related to coastal areas. For example, in September 2009, COASST documented the single largest die-off of seabirds due to a harmful algal bloom anywhere in the world — estimating the death toll between 8,000 and 10,000 birds. It would have been impossible to develop this estimate without the baseline data about beached bird patterns that 80 COASST volunteers generated via regular surveys of area beaches during previous years.

University of Washington professor and COASST executive director Julia K. Parrish testified before a natural resources committee of the Washington State Senate about the impact of the bloom on birds. In addition, COASST photos of the bloom were circulated in the news media worldwide.

Scientific papers incorporating COASST data on various other topics, including the impacts of coastal net fisheries on bird mortality, have been published in prestigious scientific journals — some of which are listed on the COASST Web site.

A COASST volunteer tags a Northern Fulmar during a COASST survey of a Washington beach. (Image credit: Courtesy of COASST)

Insights from beached birds

Why do COASST volunteers study beached birds rather than live birds? Because studying live birds is a daunting task — even for professional scientists and expert birders. By contrast, beached birds are easily accessible — they wash ashore regularly and are relatively easy to identify. And monitored changes in their abundances and causes of death may reflect important ecological changes.

Parrish started COASST in 1998 with 12 volunteers who monitored various Washington beaches. Currently, more than 700 COASST volunteers are monitoring about 350 beaches in California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska — and COASST beach monitoring is steadily expanding.

While focusing on beaches in the Pacific Northwest, COASST maintains working relationships with eight other beach bird programs that focus on varied geographic areas, from British Columbia, Canada via the British Columbia Beached Bird Survey to beaches on the east coast of the U.S. via SEANET. (A list of beached bird programs is featured on the COASST Web site.)

COASST surveyors give a thumbs-up at the end of a long survey on the northern Washington coast. (Image credit: Courtesy of COASST)

Other citizen-scientist groups

COASST is one of more than 600 citizen science groups that are currently engaging more than 100,000 volunteers in scientific research on a wide range of topics, including how molecules in cells work, biodiversity, weather, climate change, astronomical phenomena and many other topics.

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Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in Behind the Scenes articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Behind the Scenes Archive.