Monitoring Marine Protected Areas Using Citizen Science Data

Citizen science can generate biodiversity data at scales intractable for other approaches. We are building the capacity to use citizen science observations to monitor Marine Protected Areas across California.

Citizen science – the involvement of non-scientists in the production of scientific knowledge – can generate biodiversity data at spatial and temporal scales difficult to achieve by other approaches. Our team – a collaboration between the California Academy of Sciences, the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC), and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) – is building the capacity to use citizen science observations to understand and monitor biodiversity across California’s Marine Protected Area (MPA) network.

Over the last decade, the Citizen Science team at the Academy has been developing a community of naturalists – scientists and non-scientists alike – working together to document biodiversity, connecting people to their local nature and simultaneously collecting data critical to science and management. In particular, a number of ongoing Academy citizen science initiatives focus on California’s coastal ecosystems. These include Snapshot Cal Coast – an annual California statewide effort to document our coastal biodiversity – as well as more frequent but more spatially limited community bioblitzes and intertidal monitoring.

All these biodiversity observations are collected and aggregated using a common platform – iNaturalist. iNaturalist is a global network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists contributing biodiversity observations over space and time. It achieves this via a set of technological tools, which facilitate the recording, sharing and visualization of detailed biodiversity information.

Our team is developing innovative approaches and tools (here is an example) to make use of the Academy’s citizen science efforts and iNaturalist community-contributed observations in support of the State of California’s long-term MPA Monitoring Action Plan. Our aims are twofold. First, to provide recommendations for increasing the usefulness of ongoing citizen science data collection and exploiting iNaturalist observations to understand and monitor MPA biodiversity and to inform MPA management. Second, to generate knowledge of California coastal ecology and understand the effects of changing ocean conditions, by examining spatial and temporal variation in community diversity and its drivers, and documenting and understanding species’ range shifts.