U.S. Virgin Islands Coral Reef Management Fellow Austen Stovall presented “The Power of Citizen Science” Thursday at the Guinea Company Warehouse in Christiansted.
Stovall captivated the small audience with a comprehensive overview of the rich tools of her subject matter. Friends of the St. Croix USVI National Parks hosted the lecture.
Stovall worked at the St. Croix East End Marine Park in various capacities since January 2018, filling gaps including boating safety and infrastructure, researching compensatory mitigation restoration sites and coordinating the Friends of the EEMP, which includes the turtle monitoring patrol team.
With three-quarters of her two-year position in the USVI under her belt, she continues to dedicate her career to supporting ocean conservation, she said.
Stovall likes to think that her career as a marine scientist flourished with her participation in a citizen science project in high school monitoring phytoplankton blooms off the coast of North Carolina.
“The natural world is a natural starting place for citizen science,” she said.
Stovall spoke about Thomas Jefferson’s involvement with weather stations, John Audubon’s connection to the natural habitat and nesting of birds, and Mary Anning, who was an inspiration behind seashells and marine fossil beds in England. Those three notables are examples of the early citizen scientists who opened the door to the concept, which is a fairly new term in recent decades, yet an old practice.
Citizen sciences is the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists, Stovall said, in which the public’s perception of scientists and the scientists’ perception of the public lock into communication.
“When the public knows how science works and vice versa, they are both involved in the process – giving the public a stake in the game and reinforcing that science is for everyone,” she added.
Engaging the next generation early in their lives is giving them the opportunity to do science without having formal training in the subject matter, Stovall explained.
Stovall grew up near the ocean and participated once a week in her high school citizen-science project. The students collected phytoplankton blooms and scooped them up with a net. The next day they looked at them under a microscope. They sent their findings to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study.
NOAA was able to tell what was present in a bloom and could actually predict if a bloom was harmful to fisheries or mammals. Stovall and her peers contributed to NOAA’s successful calculations.
Stovall advocates bringing the public to the table. The greater the involvement of local people, the quicker it is to spread ideas into decision making.
“If you get people involved at the start, then you have a better turnout at the end for what you are trying to achieve,” she said. “It also empowers ordinary people to contribute to science and it brings all the people to the table where people are ‘butting’ heads. You might find that someone has a solution.”
There are cases where new species have been identified that were thought to be extinct, she said.
“That’s because we’re not looking in the right places. If you have everyone looking, then everyone is looking at all the places,” she said.
The University of the Virgin Islands heads the Nassau Grouper project. Groupers have been overfished in the V.I. and the project is using a global positioning system to determine if they’re coming back. It’s important to track their recovery, she said.
A gentleman in the audience commented that the tracking will allow the wrong people to find the few groupers remaining and they will fish for their own pleasure. Stovall replied that the GPS would not be available to everyone.
Stovall made reference to a California study of salmon migration in an area where salmon made their run through a town. The community was asked to move back their development or keep development back 13 feet from the creek. That allowed the salmon to move in and out of that run in order to migrate and reproduce. This is an example of citizen science – involving the community with the researchers.
Computing applications allow scientists to track how the climate is changing the migration of birds and insects and all sorts of things, Stovall said. These are long-term data sets.
Citizen scientists can do research on fish, insects, birds, lionfish and monarch butterflies, amphibians, wildflowers, the bottom of the sea, whale sharks, humpback whales, sea turtles, coral reef, seagrass, the weather, and other areas Stovall shared for the community to consider.
NPS Park Ranger Benito Vegas reported that he actively monitors the weather and regularly monitors rainfall with a rain gauge – empowering himself as a citizen scientist.
Stovall asked that those people who are doing beach cleanups record everything they collect. Waste Management Authority uses the records as resource data. NOAA keeps track of what is collected to enforce the plastics and plastic foam bans.
There is a coral disease in St. Thomas but not in St. Croix waters, Stovall reported. She is actively calling out to all who snorkel or dive to upload their pictures of whatever they see, whether good or bad, in hopes the disease is caught before it can reach St. Croix.
The disease does not come in one patch, she said. It comes in different areas and on all sides of the coral. Pictures should be sent to the disease experts on St. Thomas.
Coral that looks unhealthy or bleached is also a need for concern, she said. Reporting these observations is crucial to the health and life of the territory’s coral. This public participation is scientific research and it helps in the advancements of the research as well as it increases the public’s understanding of science, Stovall said.
Stovall said the four monitoring projects on St. Croix are:
– National Park Service on Buck Island,
– Leatherback Turtle at Sandy Point,
– St. Croix Environmental Association at South Shore Coastal Reserve,
– EEMP at the Howard Wall Boy Scout Camp on the south shore – all around Point Udall to Green Cay on the north side including the South Shore Coastal Reserve.
Six of 15 beaches are monitored and give an idea of beach usage – informing researchers on what should be done about the turtle population, especially on the east end, Stovall added.
“There is a myriad of things to consider,” Stovall said, “There are lighting mandates, beach access, driving on the beach, and driving certain times of the year.”
“Whether you’re interested in plants, amphibians, fish or sea turtles, there’s a citizen science project for you on St. Croix,” Stovall said.