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Citizen Science Assists Coastal Ecosystem Studies

Julia Parrish is the founder and executive director of COASST
Julia Parrish is the founder and executive director of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) and a professor at the University of Washington. She is shown here on a COASST field visit to Homer, Alaska. (Image credit: M. Renner)

This ScienceLives article was provided to Live Science in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

As a scuba diver and a marine conservation biologist, Julia K. Parrish frequently dives into her work with wild abandon — literally. But as the executive director of a citizen science group that organizes volunteers to monitor beach-cast seabird carcasses, Parrish even more frequently keeps both feet firmly planted on the ground — or to be more specific: on the coastline.

Parrish's Seattle-based citizen science group — the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) — is devoted to advancing the science of coastal ecology and contributing to natural resources management.

Parrish founded COASST in 1998 with a band of 12 volunteers. Since then, Parrish has grown COASST, which is partially funded by the National Science Foundation, to a team of about 800 coastal residents from varied walks of life who collect data from more than 350 sites in California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. For her leadership in citizen science, Parrish won a White House Champion of Change award in 2013. [Power To The People? Everyone Can Do Citizen Science (Op-Ed)]

Studying Beached Bird Carcasses

Why do COASST volunteers study beached bird carcasses rather than live birds? Because accessing live birds is a daunting task, even for professional scientists and expert birders. But beached birds regularly wash ashore and are relatively easy to identify. In addition, changes in the numbers and causes of beached birds may reflect important ecological changes related to natural cycles or human factors. 

Data COASST collects on beached bird carcasses includes information related to resident and migrant species; changes in mortality rates; levels of pollution known as chronic oiling; and incidence of bird entanglement with fishing gear. 

All COASST data is independently validated by experts.

Applications of COASST Data

COASST data helps establish baseline patterns of beached bird mortality — information that may be used by scientists and natural resource managers to help identify the impacts on birds of phenomena as diverse as harmful algal blooms, oil spills, climate change and fishing. 

For example, in 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. This estimate could not have been developed without baseline data about beached bird patterns that had been generated by 80 COASST volunteers via regular surveys of area beaches during previous years.

In addition, COASST data informs many analyses of the potential impacts of resource development on coastal ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest. COASST data also has been incorporated into many scientific papers on various topics, including the impacts of coastal net fisheries on bird mortality.

The growing power of citizen science

The increasing importance of citizen science to scientific advancement and the many and varied citizen science programs supported by National Science Foundation are discussed in an article, Novel Answer to That Perennial "Earth Day" Question: "What Can I Do to Help?"

Name: Julia K. Parrish Institution: University of Washington  Field of Study: Marine biology and marine conservation

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in ScienceLives 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 ScienceLives archive.