Liz Parissenti: Giving ‘citizen scientists’ a stake in ocean management

Author: Liz Parissenti
Fellow Type: California Sea Grant State Fellow
Year(s) of Fellowship: 2014
Host Agency: California Ocean Protection Council (OPC)

I came to California Sea Grant through a circuitous route involving undergraduate work on Humboldt squid, graduate studies in marine policy and management, and a year working as a dive master and scientific diver in Southeast Asia. During my year abroad, I realized that Thailand and Cambodia have designated marine protected areas (MPAs) where certain types of fishing and extractive activities are illegal, but there is little monitoring or enforcement. In addition, locals are often excluded from participating in any type of community-driven conservation because there is no funding for training or equipment. Through my fellowship at the Ocean Protection Council (OPC), I am working on management of California’s network of MPAs and have had the opportunity to participate in a great example of California’s support for citizen science – Reef Check California – that showed me how it is possible to give ocean-minded citizens a stake in how we manage our ocean.

The Reef Check Foundation was established in 1996 and now has locations all over the world to address gaps in citizen science. Its California Reef Check program, started in 2005, provides valuable data for monitoring the network of MPAs in California (we have 124 MPAs in state waters – one of the most comprehensive networks in the world!). Reef Check volunteers collect data underwater and compile fish counts, species identification, and other information into a database, allowing scientists to evaluate how California’s marine organisms are responding to marine protected areas, climate change, and more. This data also allows the OPC and our partners to be better informed managers. OPC has provided funding to organizations like Reef Check, and I was able to incorporate the training into my fellowship so I could see this program in action.

In July, I spent two days at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco learning how to scientifically evaluate different organisms and be a safe scientific diver. I dove for marine labs at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station during graduate school, and this provided a valuable refresher – but it was also a great training for those who had never done underwater science. I was impressed by the thoroughness of the course, as well as the motivated recreational divers who showed up to learn how they can help monitor the kelp forests.

The second part of the course involved diving in Monterey to test our skills and ensure that we could correctly identify species, sizes, and quantities of different organisms. It was a blast! The team at Reef Check was supportive, fun, and most importantly, safe. We not only learned how to be conscientious dive buddies and safely keep track of our own equipment to collect data – we were also able to take a tour of the Pacific Grove Hyperbaric Chamber, thanks to one of my fellow Reef Check trainees, Carl, who volunteers there.

The ten Reef Check trainees in my course came from all backgrounds: current and former scientists, consultants, teachers, engineers, and students. We all shared two things: the desire to see a healthy ocean, and a love of diving. I am thankful for the opportunity to complete the Reef Check course, and will take my increased understanding of citizen science – and how so many diverse people across California care about the ocean – back to my work on MPAs in my fellowship at the OPC.

Written by Liz Parissenti