COASST: Monitoring seabirds of the Pacific Northwest

By July 31st, 2014 at 11:05 am | Comment 1

Identify beached birds and help monitor the health of the coastal ecosystem.

Looking for more summertime citizen science projects? Find them here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you enjoy long walks on the beach while taking in the surrounding wildlife? Are you concerned about environmental issues and passionate about community projects? Are you ready for commitment?

If so, then you might just be perfect match for COASST. (Did you think this was something else?)

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, or COASST, is a Pacific northwest seabird monitoring citizen science project. COASST was established about 10 years ago by Dr. Julia Parrish of the University of Washington. She wanted to address the need for continuous monitoring of coastal ecosystems. Long-term, large-scale monitoring of coastal marine life is important for understanding the health of coastal ecosystems. The data establishes a baseline from which to assess changes due to natural or man-made causes, which is critical for informed coastal conservation and managements plans. It is also a huge undertaking.

That is where you, the citizen scientist, come in.

“COASST relies on the efforts of volunteers to help monitor over 400 survey sites,” says COASST volunteer coordinator Erika Frost. What started out ten years ago as a small band of twelve volunteers surveying five beaches has grown to include almost 500 volunteers monitoring beaches in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and northern California. Run through the University of Washington, it has the support of various state, federal and tribal agencies as well as environmental organizations and community groups.

The success of COASST relies on the dedication and quality of work provided by its citizen scientists. First time volunteers attend a 6-hour training session to learn how to identify beached birds. Beached birds are the standardized monitoring unit because seabird carcasses regularly come ashore and are far easier to identify correctly than live seabirds. Consistent sampling is critical for producing reliable and useful data, so prospective volunteers must commit to surveying their assigned beach at least once per month. Bird guides and other resources and materials are available through COASST.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_fulmar#mediaviewer/File:Northern-Fulmar2_cropped.jpg

Northern Fulmar

“The average survey site is about 1 km or ¾ of a mile. Although we try to fill our historic sites first, we are happy to establish new survey sites if a volunteer has a stretch of beach in mind that is not currently surveyed,” says Frost. “Once on the beach, volunteers search for bird carcasses that have washed in on the latest tide. Volunteers use the Beached Birds field guide to identify the beach birds they encounter. Using this guide, identification of beached birds is possible, even with just a foot, wing, or bill of a bird by following a series of steps. In addition we ask volunteers to collect data on the human use of their survey site.”

The collected data is quite rigorous. All data is available to be independently verified by experts. Volunteer species identification was 85% accurate across over 100 observed species. “From the data collected by our volunteers, we have established a baseline for seabird mortality on North Pacific beaches. COASST data has also been used for studies on topics such as climate change, bycatch events, oil spills, and harmful algal blooms. We make our data available to individuals, agencies and organizations working to protect the marine environment.” Beached bird patterns are viewable on their website.

There is growing interest among coastal resident to become more actively involved in coastal conservation and resource management. In response, COASST plans to ramp up its coastal collection programs. In the next 10 years, COASST is planning to begin tracking beach pollution and other marine wildlife, in particular invasive species and climate change indicator species.

Resources:
COASST’s blog

Image Credits: NOAA (top); Wikipedia (bottom)


Dr. Carolyn Graybeal holds a PhD in neuroscience from Brown University. She is a former National Academies of Science Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Fellow during which time she worked with the Marian Koshland Science Museum. In addition the intricacies of the human brain, she is interested in the influence of education and mass media in society’s understanding of science.