**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
The Basics: Grunion run onto sandy beaches during their spawning season at night after the highest tide associated with a full or new moon. Volunteers contribute to our evolving understanding of the grunion by reporting observations of when and where they run. Volunteers recording this basic life history information contribute to state and federal management strategies.
Volunteers do not need any prior experience but must start in the program with a training workshop at the beginning of the grunion season. Here, they learn the protocol and coordinate which beach and dates they adopt to make sure that the whole range of the grunion is observed throughout the season.
Personal relationships with volunteers establishes a core group of dedicated volunteers who serve as an early warning system – checking on the edges of the grunion range and season to make sure the more unusual sightings are also captured in the data. In a few cases, the grunion themselves recruited people – such as a party of late-night anglers who saw grunion at an unusual location, knew about Grunion Greeters, and reported the sighting.
The program has many elements of fun, but volunteers also take themselves quite seriously. For example, volunteers with the most sightings of grunion receive rewards, but no one has attempted padding their data to push them up the competition list. Instead, people apologize if they unexpectedly miss a grunion run. In addition, the data goes directly to management decisions and is a huge motivator and balancing force – volunteers read about the project in the news so they see the immediate outcome of their work.
Meeting the Mission by Balancing Goals
The goal of the program is to monitor for grunion runs on sandy beaches and provide data for their protection and management. The management uses of the data, especially for stock assessments, coastal permitting, and regional planning, motivate the volunteers to strictly follow the protocol and uphold high scientific standards. Also, managers and scientists need the same kinds of information on stock and long-term changes in the population, so the pair of science and management goals works well in this context.
Data Types Good for a Citizen Science Approach
Grunion make good targets for citizen science because they are a fun and charismatic species. They show up on the beach en masse, and seeing them feels like a special experience. They fit the profile of other successful citizen science programs focused on big creatures that stand out in their environment, like birds, human activities, sand crabs, or plants. The information collected is also directly about this charismatic run of fish on a beach – timing and abundance of the event.
There is no other way to collect data about the runs except by direction observation of a distributed network of people. Thus, participation of citizen scientists is vital.
However, volunteers must go out in the middle of the night. This can be a challenge, but the reward of seeing the run is large enough to motivate volunteers out of bed. Volunteers also must record other information about the site – weather, wave height, presence of predators, etc – so that if they go out and no grunion are running, they are still contributing data. For some locations, where grunion are rare, the call for volunteers doesn’t go out until after a scientist confirms a sighting.
The program educates its volunteer base, answering volunteer questions of why the grunion did or did not show up at a particular beach or how the grunion population is doing compared to previous years. The grunion run events, and the data provided by Grunion Greeters, also form the basis of articles in local newspapers about the run when it arrives each year. The program website and frequently asked question page are also often accessed by students and educators.
Grunion Greeters has a formal partnership with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which uses the data to help manage the grunion fishery and uses the fishery as an indicator for the health of the specific habitat types it requires. Maps of the grunion range, formed from program data, helped inform the marine protected area implementation process to help think about the connections between habitat under the mean high tide line and adjacent sandy shorelines (local managers can enforce protections on the beach if they see fit). Working with the California Coastal Commission, federal agencies and local planners also use the data to write environmental impact statements for planned coastal construction.
The scientific partners and director of Grunion Greeters make use of the data and several have written peer-reviewed journal articles with the data. The program director also writes about the program and data as part of her larger research program – but wishes she had time to sit down and work through the data more publicly so that volunteers and other people without journal access could make use of of the data as part of an entirely open scientific process.
verification of data quality
Grunion Greeters methodology is designed so that no single observation stands on its own, creating some room for mistakes by, say, brand new volunteers. After training in a variety of scenarios, multiple volunteers each count the same run of grunion for later comparison. Afterwards, volunteers or program staff will return to the beach and check for eggs in order to groundtruth the data from the run. Once the data are all turned in, the program coordinator scans for quality control, makes corrections, and decides what kinds of analysis the data can speak to.
raw data transparency and access
The data are available to anyone who emails the program director to request it (data are housed on the data repository at Pepperdine University, the host institution). In the future, she’d love to have either more time to deal with data requests or a more efficient system to handle them.
The main reason Grunion Greeters is structured as a citizen science program is to make it sustainable in the long-term, depending primarily on the long-term interest of people in grunions. However, they rely upon long-term funding to organize the program and make use of the data. They also rely on partnerships with universities, aquariums, museums, environmental organizations, governmental agencies, and state parks for administrative help, like coordinating the over 400 annual volunteers.
Looking Toward the Future
Increasing numbers of grunions are running in more northern locales and interest in the program is increasing and continues to be strong. The future plans for Grunion Greeters will include ways of maintaining strong relationships and communications between the volunteers, the scientists, and the data users. Grunion Greeters already boasts a long list of partners, who will help host volunteers and utilize the data in their planning and decision-making. As the program grows in age as well, scientists can begin to use the data to assess long-term trends in the grunion population and ask additional questions of the program. Lessons learned and partnerships formed in this program are helping to implement a more comprehensive initiative for ecological monitoring of sandy beaches in the near future.