**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
One would think this is an easy question to answer: ask around, make a list, and count. Yet, when someone asks me this question – as frequently occurs – I say ‘around 30’. So why the fuzzy math?
Firstly, citizen science groups are often nested within broader organizations. These organizations sometimes host more than one citizen science program under the banner of a region or topic. For example, the Morro Bay National Estuary Program has groups of volunteers that monitor water quality, eelgrass, bacteria, sediment, and take aerial surveys. Some of these programs involve just a handful of volunteers and do not brand themselves as ‘citizen science’ while others are entirely volunteer-focused. So does this program get listed as the Morro Bay Volunteer Monitoring Program or split up and listed individually? If split, which ones count as citizen science and which are just volunteer opportunities?
The second reason arises in partnerships that create broader networks. For instance, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary hosts Urban Watch, First Flush, Snapshot Day, Team OCEAN, Bay Net, and partners with Beach COMBERS. On the other side of Monterey Bay, the Coastal Watershed Council hosts Urban Watch and First Flush. So do you count the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary volunteer program and Coastal Watershed Council as groups or First Flush and Urban Watch? If the former option, does the count accurately reflect the diversity of citizen science activity in the area? If the latter option, does that accurately portray methodological differences between regions and the different community identities within these efforts?
Moving statewide, this chapter question becomes even more complicated, as different chapters of the same group will tap into different pools of volunteers and reflect regional needs and interests. MPA Watch, a program that monitors human activities along the coast, operates out of several different nonprofits, but is now coordinating methodology so that groups can compare their data across the state. In another similar example, BeachCOMBERS, Beach Watch, and COASST – all of whom track beach-cast birds on their stretch of beach – cover most of the West Coast, from San Luis Obispo in the south to Alaska in the north. While they are trying to coordinate data standards for the beach-cast birds, each group maintains other data sets and volunteer recruitment strategies as needed for their region.
The final issue in counting arises from the constantly shifting landscape of citizen science. New programs arrive every year and others fade into history. This is driven largely by two factors: excitement for applying citizen science approaches to new problems and the short-term nature of science funding. In addition, not all citizen science programs focus on long-term monitoring data. The Collaborative Fisheries Research West program’s most recent round of funding covered one monitoring group but most projects were short term, just a few years, designed to tap into fisher knowledge to answer a specific question. When the question got answered, the project ended. Same for the longer-term humpback whale tracking named SPLASH based out of the Cascadia Research Collective – the scientist in charge has since moved on to other projects. Since last August, we’ve also gained a new one, recording sightings of sea-star wasting disease. The rapidly moving nature of the disease made citizen science a great approach for collecting data fast enough to capture disease dynamics.
So while one of the most valuable deliverables of the California Citizen Science Initiative is the roster of regional, coast-focused citizen science groups, it is also one of the most difficult to produce. In the coming weeks, we’ll try to think of ways to capture and update this moving target for the Central Coast, so let us know about new groups as you hear about them!