Monday, September 2, 2013

Citizen Scientists

Up until a few years ago the scientific world viewed amateurs with what could best be called disdain.  This applied to archaeology in spades so it was only the boffin with very small trowel and brush who could get involved.  This worked OK I suppose when a site was discovered and partially exposed but was a bit of a struggle if, say, you knew from ancient texts that a 5th century Saxon burial chamber was somewhere near and you arrived at 'here' to find a large farm field.  Armed with your small trowel and brush it could take a good while to cover the entire field... and there was no guarantee that it actually was 'this' field.

Enter the amateur.

Ringlemere Cup

Now if you, say, had a personal metal detector and liked to spend your weekends tramping across fields looking for metal traces that just might be valuable stuff like coins and came across the largest Saxon burial site discovered in years then maybe just maybe your findings may not be sniffed at as not being found in the 'right' way... and the whole concept of the enthusiastic amateur may not be dismissed out of hand but recognised for what it is.  Namely, free help that may, I repeat may, find stuff more quickly  (see and Ringlemere Cup).

Welcome Citizen Scientist!

Fortunately the folks at the Bermuda Zoological Society agree!  For this year as the cash strapped Bermuda government pulled much of its funding for charities particularly for research that could be considered to be esoteric, they decided to ask the public for help instead.

Until I googled it just now I hadn't realised quite how many Bream Projects exist around the world.  The one I am thinking about is this one -- Dr. Thad Murdoch tells it better than me.

Bermuda’s coral reefs are vital to the persistence of our economy and wellbeing. Living coral reefs act as a self-healing protective sea wall, blocking storm waves from destroying our fragile limestone shoreline and the coastal infrastructure we built along its edge. Our tourism industry relies on the beauty and charisma of our island; contributed substantially by the many recreational and aesthetic opportunities provided by the coral reefs around us. An economic evaluation of the lagoonal reef, which represents half of the entire reef system, found that $750,000,000 to $1,250,000,000 are contributed to Bermuda’s economy annually by the reefs of Bermuda. It is strongly in our interests to ensure that the coral reef system that protects and sustains our lives is itself protected from the extensive harm that can be caused by bad human behaviour such as overfishing, dredging, shipping traffic and the global environmental threats of climate change and ocean acidification.

Pretty darned important for Bermuda then!

So after the topic was raised at a recent BZS board meeting I asked our friend Stan if he fancied getting involved (OK I was shameless, I was after his boat!) and he said 'you betcha' that put the onus on me to organise him and a crew of at least 4 to go out and spend a day on two of Bermuda's beautiful but unvisited reefs.

These are the reefs that have been visited so far.  There are 35,000 so quite a few to go!
The pre-trip briefing was interesting.  The intent was for each crew to visit 2 far flung reefs each.  In 2 people teams the scientists would (1) assess the health of the coral reef itself and (2) count the fish near the reef.

Two things jump out: first, how do you assess the health of the reef and secondly how on earth do you tell fish apart say if there are 2 or more stripey ones, how do you know they are different or the same one dogging you?  This is of course where the worth of the citizen scientist becomes questionable because unless you know, well you don't know do you?  Fortunately the real scientists told us what to look for in reef health and how to tell fish apart and gave us each a hoola hoop and a couple of slates to record our findings.  They also gave us GPS coordinates so we could find the particular reef.

Lynda at BZS asked us all to enter our crew's name and details on Crowdrise, a pledge site (see here to make YOUR own pledge: stanscrew) where we would give our donations and ask others to do so as well.

Don't you just love this new wave of social media?  This is not Facebook or Twitter kind of social media but a means of doing things and raising money via crowd financing.  The concept is simple: get a bunch of people to group together to do special things.  I personally like the crowd financing concept whereby small businesses that cannot get bank financing (banks just not lending, not necessarily the businesses being bad risks) obtain business financing from individuals who aren't being paid anything for their bank deposits and want to earn a better return... and at the same time do good for the economy.  For it is the growth of small and medium size businesses that increase real employment in an economy and turn things around.  The UK has it and the UK government has in a moment of admirable forward thinking put its own skin in the game contributing in some cases the first 20% of the financing.  The US is in the process of doing it after the passage of the JOBS Act. Canada doesn't have it yet but wants to.  It all came out of the micro-financing idea propagated in Bangladesh and Africa and is moving towards the mainstream (see Microfinance for more).

We set out on Saturday with Stan's son Roger and friend Alan joining Viv, Stan and I on the trip.  Stan had spent several hours the evening before programming the GPS coordinates into his device so we hoped finding our assigned reef wouldn't be too difficult... but this wasn't just any reef.  It was one that had been surveyed from the air only.  Nobody had actually knowingly been there!  But it was big... supposedly the size of a house.  It took quite a while to find but we ultimately did ... we think!

Which one is ours?

It was eerie leaving the safety of the boat some 5-6 miles offshore with the land looking pretty small ... and not being the world's greatest swimmer.  I had to admire Viv, Alan and Roger who simply hopped off the side and then proceeded to heckle.  I couldn't bring myself to ask Stan for a life jacket but I certainly wasn't going to miss out on a noodle.  Anything that helps buoyancy is fine by me!

Which way's dry land?

Citizen Scientist Roger at work ... note the noodle and recording slate

This time of year, the water is still beautifully warm and the sea really is that colour.  The water depth was 20 feet away from the reef but down to only a couple over the top of it.  The slightly stingy fire coral would be a factor... if you knew which one it was!

But down to work.  Viv and I were hoola hooping first time out, the idea being that you take the hoola hoop and lob it over the reef randomly and within the ring estimate how much of each type of coral was there, how much sand, weed, bare rock, etc.

Brain, finger, soft and star coral.  Thankfully all in pretty good health.
We spent an hour in the water and had lunch before checking the chart for the next reef which Stan said was further out towards the outer reef, near Chubb Marker some 8 miles offshore.  I hadn't realised that there were reefs that far out but it is the reason why there are so many shipwrecks around Bermuda, running into the hundreds.  Even today there are emergencies as many of the really big ships have charts that don't show Bermuda so Bermuda's Harbour Radio has to get to work!  Even now boat owners who are out late don't try to take on the reefs if it gets too dark.

The next reef was in deeper water.  Stan said 60 feet in some parts but again once on the reef itself it could be as little as a couple of feet.  This time it was Viv's and my turn to count fish whilst Alan and Roger would check out the reef.

The non-recording Citizen Scientists, Viv and Alan

I'd never seen a shoal of parrotfish before.  Usually they are in ones and twos. This one had 20 fish at least.
This reef was lovely.  The last one was lovely but this one was lovelier.  The coral was more luxuriant and there were lots of fish.  In fact there were so many I gave up counting and just wrote "LOTS" on the fish slate. (By the way Alan was the underwater cameraman and has lots more Here).

Reef #7 on the chart.  Such a dull name for such a lovely place.

We spent another hour on the second reef and wouldn't have minded staying longer.  The plan was to head back in to meet around 4 pm but it was a lovely evening so sitting off sipping cool drinks and taking in the scenery would have been lovely but no we Citizen Scientists have obligations to keep and scientific data to submit.

Our reefs
But all in all it was a great day and according to BZS a great success.  20 boats went out meaning 40 new reefs were surveyed and important data gleaned. It will be repeated and simply underscores the fact that even non-experts can help doing important work if asked and managed properly.  BZS did a great job of that so thanks to them for the organisation (this is where you can find them: BZS).

Stan's Crew from left: Stan, Viv, Roger, Alan

Thanks guys.  It was a blast!

And check the YouTube clip too!

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