Participation in volunteer conservation groups is growing throughout B.C., adding valuable human power to citizen science initiatives. In addition to providing crucial data used to monitor the health of coastal ecosystems, citizen science initiatives also create strong community ties that boost overall wellbeing for participants.

Author: Karin Bodtker, MRM, Coastal Ocean Research Institute, an Ocean Wise initiative

Reviewers: Jessica Torode, B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network Coordinator, Coastal Ocean Research Institute, an Ocean Wise initiative

ZoAnn Morten, Pacific Streamkeepers Federation

Karen Devitt, BC Program Coordinator, Bird Studies Canada

Rachel Schoeler, Manager, Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, an Ocean Wise initiative

Banner Photo Credit: S. Valderrama

What’s happening?

 

Many programs along the B.C. coast which rely on volunteers to undertake and citizen science activities are growing. Citizens give a variety of reasons for participating, including a sense of satisfaction, self-worth, stewardship of the environment around them, and the pleasure of working with like-minded people. All of this adds up to improved sense of place and personal wellbeing, with numerous benefits to the larger community and the natural environment.

“When you already love a place, having… a way to share your observations that connects you to others and adds to the body of knowledge simply increases and magnifies that love… reporting to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network adds another layer of intention, connection, and meaning to my sense of my homeplace. It feels a tiny bit reciprocal, as if I have a small something to give back, where I have received so much.”

Yvonne Maximchuk, Artist, SeaRose Studio, a BCCSN participant

Why is it important?

 

Programs that rely on volunteers often tackle problems and issues that would not otherwise be adequately
addressed due to limited government resources. For example, 12 of B.C.’s 23 cetacean species (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are listed as either endangered, threatened, or of special concern under Canada’s species at Risk Act. Monitoring of these species is both logistically and financially challenging due to B.C.’s vast and remote coastline. In response to this issue, the British Columbia Cetacean Sightings Network (BCCSN) was formed. The program relies on volunteers spread over a vast geography to report observations, which are then tallied, analyzed, and used for conservation-based research.

 

Killer whales near the shore of Stanley Park. (Photo: Ocean Wise)

 

Similarly, Bird Studies Canada takes advantage of a large network of volunteer observers to undertake bird surveys to monitor the distribution and numbers of a huge variety of waterbirds. Another volunteer organization, the Pacific Streamkeepers Federation, assists groups in the monitoring of fish populations and stream health. Many of these groups also work on stream enhancement projects and other projects to monitor and restore fish habitat.

Finally, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, an initiative of Ocean Wise and WWF-Canada, tackles the polluting aspect of litter head-on. Over 80 percent of marine pollution comes from land-based activities according to the World Wildlife Fund. Shoreline cleanups along ocean shores, lakes shores and streams, and even in schoolyards, around storm drains and roadside ditches all reduce the amount of pollution contaminating the ocean.

What is the current status?

 

We highlight four example programs (see full article) that illustrate increasing volunteerism and participation in activities related to environmental stewardship and/or citizen science. Increasing participation means greater awareness of habitat values and an understanding of human influence on habitat quality, both good and bad. These factors combined with outdoor activity strengthen participants’ sense of place and wellbeing.

Example 1: B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network

The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network (BCCSN) was formed in 2000 by the Marine Mammal Research Program in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The BCCSN is a citizen science program in which coastal citizens can help to protect cetaceans and sea turtles by reporting their sightings. Participation has grown to over 6,200 observers who report their whale, dolphin, porpoise, and sea turtle sightings to the network as a way of giving back to the environment that they cherish. Over the last 10 years, the BCCSN has seen changes in the types of observers who report to the program (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Changes in types of volunteer observers from 2007 through 2016. Each observer is placed into an effort category, to reflect the amount
of time they spend on the water. “City” = Observers with no affiliation to an organization, including coastal residents, recreational boaters, and residents with waterfront properties. “Coastal” = Observers that spend time on the B.C. coast, including researchers, fisheries observers,
employees of aquaculture operations, and sea plane pilots. “Ecotour” = Observers that work as naturalists on whale watching boats or kayak tour companies. “Keener” = Frequent observers that are often out on the water and have reported over 450 sightings each. “MCTS”= Marine pilots, tug boat operators, ferry captains and crew, Canadian Coast Guard personnel, and personnel on navy vessels. “Lightstation” = Observers stationed at staffed lighthouses. “Parks” = Observers visiting parks, park wardens, interpreters, and rangers.

 

Example 2: Bird Studies Canada bird surveys

In 1999 Bird Studies Canada began the BC Coastal Waterbird Survey to coordinate the efforts of people who care about waterbirds in British Columbia. Since 1999, the number of volunteers involved in this survey has
more than tripled (Figure 2). Volunteers count waterbirds at specific locations along the B.C. coast each
month and they can submit data and view results on the website.

 

Figure 2. The number of volunteers participating in bird surveys through Bird Studies Canada has more than tripled since 1999.

 

Example 3: Streamkeepers

Since 2013 when counting began, 3,473 volunteer Pacific Streamkeepers have logged over 4.5 million volunteer
hours. That’s over 8 weeks of full-time work per volunteer per year! The Pacific Streamkeepers groups are volunteers that do everything from salmon stream restoration work to monitoring, planning, and organizing others.

 

Example 4: Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup

Since 2010, participation in shoreline cleanups tracked by the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup has nearly
doubled, and so has the number of cleanup events (Figure 3). A growing number of citizens are pitching
in to clean up litter and reduce the impacts of pollution, including potential impacts on aquatic creatures. Participants of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup become citizen scientists working to protect the health of our oceans by tracking litter data for their local shorelines. Last year alone British Columbians removed 46,117 kg of litter from B.C. shorelines, wherever land meets water (See our interactive map).

 

Figure 3. Total participants and total number of cleanups accomplished by the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup program across British Columbia between 2010 and 2016.

What can you do?

 

action-individual Individual and Organization Actions:

 

  • Report cetacean and sea turtle sightings to wildwhales.org, or 1.866.I.SAW.ONE (1.866.472.9663) or sightings@vanaqua.org or use the WhaleReport smartphone app (on either iOS or Android devices).
  • Report cetacean-vessel strikes or animals in distress to 1.800.465.4336 or on VHF Channel 16.
  •  Lead or join a Shoreline Cleanup. Rally together a group of your friends, family members, or colleagues to clean a shoreline near you.
  •  Learn to identify our coastal species, connect with the natural world, and take the first step to conservation
    action by borrowing natural history books from the library, joining your local naturalist group for an outing,
    and participating in Citizen Science programs.
  • Directly contribute to conservation and stewardship of our coastlines by participating in Bird Studies
    Canada’s coastal monitoring programs. Contact BCvolunteer@birdscanada.org to learn how you can help.
  • Get involved in a Streamkeeper group near you!

action-government Government Actions and Policy:

 

  • Implement the Marine Plan Partnership’s Protection Management Zones.
  • Commit to continued participation in the Pacific Habitat Joint Venture and collaborate with parties along the entire Pacific Flyway.
  • Follow through on global Achi Biodiversity Targets, specifically Target 11 to protect 17 percent of terrestrial and inland waters, and 10 percent coastal and marine habitats.
  • Deliver on the CEAA 2012 expert review panel recommendation for Impact Assessment (IA) legislation to require that all phases of IA integrate the best available scientific information and methods, and integrate the best evidence from science, Indigenous knowledge, and community knowledge through a framework determined in collaboration with Indigenous Groups, knowledge-holders, and scientists.
  • Implement policies to reduce or ban single-use plastics.
  • Sign on to be a Clean Shoreline Community with the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and mark your municipality as a leader by actively addressing the important issue of shoreline litter.
  • Support community cleanup and volunteer efforts by offering supplies (garbage bags, gloves, etc.) to groups. “Keep Vancouver Spectacular” provides a great example.

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