**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>

In the aftermath of Cosco Busan spilling nearly 54,000 gallons of oil around the Bay Bridge and outer coast from Drakes bay to Half Moon Bay in 2007, Beach Watch volunteers mobilized to walk the beach each morning and track effectiveness of the recovery effort. Their long-term data set collected through bimonthly beach walks since 1992, established a picture of what local beaches looked like before the spill. These morning surveys help establish what it looked like after. This is just one of many examples of the value Beach Watch data brings to better understanding our coast.

Beach Watch is one of the citizen science groups actively monitoring the North-Central Coast that we learned more about as part of the Citizen Science Initiative. We spoke with program leaders and caught up on our reading to bring you a program profile as part of this profile series (read more about that here).

The Basics

Beach Watch is a year-round shoreline beach monitoring program based out of Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and administered by the Farallones Marine Sanctuary in which volunteers on foot record live and dead birds, mammals, tarballs, and visitor activities on the beach. Around 120 volunteers cover 42 beaches between Año Nuevo and Bodega Bay every two weeks. The program has been based out of Farallones for 20 years.

Program Participation

Of the 120 volunteers currently participating in Beach Watch, 15 have participated in the program since its inception, and most volunteers can claim more than a decade experience. Most of these long-term volunteers, having walked the same beach for many years, can speak to changes over time that they personally observe. Stewardship of a beach is a big motivator to keep volunteers returning to the program.

With so many long-term participants, Beach Watch has become a fairly tight community, especially within a cohort that goes through training together. This inner-cohort bonding is not surprising, given the training itself is a large commitment, taking the form of a class requiring 80 hours of classroom and field training

Meeting the Mission by Balancing Goals

Beach Watch goal is to increase protection of sanctuary wildlife by collecting information to be used by sanctuary protection.  This goal is achieved by providing baseline data and increasing capacity to respond to oil spills. The program focuses on data collection that will be used to describe and measure impacts of oil pollution, detection of mortality events, and identification of changes in wildlife use of sanctuary habitats.

Data Types Good for a Citizen Science Approach

Intensive training and long-term commitment of volunteers shapes the Beach Watch volunteer pool. Volunteers must have the attention to detail and rigor that rivals professionals. This allows the program to take relatively more complicated measurements and observations than might be possible in other programs.

Data Uses

Management Uses

As part of a close partnership with the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary system, the methods and protocols are designed to meet the data needs of Sanctuary managers, especially regarding permitting concerns and animal protection plans. For instance, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary staff uses Beach Watch data to manage boat groundings, oil spills, and permit inquiries, usually calling upon program staff directly to provide data compilation and analyses and recommendations.

Outside the Sanctuary, data are used for MPA monitoring (they contributed to North Central Coast baseline data), CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, county parks, national parks and refuges, and state parks. These agencies often use Beach Watch data as historical context to evaluate new programs such as implementation of MPAs, salmon creek restoration, or snowy plover protection.

Data on tarballs or oil slicks identified through Beach Watch are considered evidence for the state and federal government in cases against parties responsible for oil spills. These data are considered part of the chain of custody of evidence in the relevant judicial system and are therefore largely unavailable for other uses. However, the data’s use as evidence has resulted in judgments awarding restoration money for oil-impacted areas.

Scientific Uses

The Beach Watch data are utilized by land managers and scientists for resource status assessments and historic trend analyses. And has been used field guide development to establish expected ranges of the birds in the guide. The dead and live wildlife data in this database is also available for academic and public use, the scientific uses outside of the program encourages.

Scientific Credibility

Verification of Data Quality

Beach Watch’s extensive volunteer training requires an initial 80 hours, and includes college-level curriculum covering protocols and identification. After the initial training, volunteers required to attend additional training to increase their identification skills and refresh proper protocols. The program requires a one-year commitment from volunteers once training is complete. This has led to a base of skilled, long-term volunteers. Once volunteers are trained, they are required to take photographs during data collection so that program experts can verify the observations later.

Raw Data Transparency and Access

Beach Watch posts its bird and marine mammal data on a publicly accessible database and is open about discussing other aspects of their program in person.

Clarity of Communications

Most of the Beach Watch training process, materials, and data collection methods are publicly available alongside beach-cast bird data. This portrays the large amount of effort put towards data verification and the care dedicated towards fostering rigor and credibility in the data.

Willingness and Ability to Adapt Methods

The large territory covered by Beach Watch is bordered by similar programs on either side: BeachCOMBERS to the south and COASST to the north. Through regular communication and data management, Beach Watch has worked to coordinate with those two programs to provide a comprehensive picture of birds and mammals on the West Coast.

Beach Watch also has some flexibility for shifting focus or collecting additional data while maintaining the long-term data set on dead birds and tarballs. These amendments are made primarily in accordance with Sanctuary management needs.

Program Sustainability

While the actual process of walking a beach and collecting data requires few resources and engenders loyalty and commitment from the volunteers, the data verification and management side of the program require lots of staff time. The program also strives to provide volunteers with the few needs they do have. Here’s some of the critical resources needed to keep Beach Watch running:

  • binoculars
  • the database – requires some programmer time and lots of data management time
  • bird identification expert for data verification

Looking Toward the Future

Beach Watch will continue fostering collaborations in the future with sister programs north and south. They are also exploring applications for their various kinds of data. For example, they are honing their visitor activities protocols in partnership with MPA Watch, which is focused entirely on human activities along the coast.

And of course, Beach Watch’s long-term data on birds and mammals will continue to provide an understanding of coastal conditions, so we can better understand what impacts humans are having when we spill oil.