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Expert Amateurs: Local Dive Guides Report Sharks for Citizen Science

Ocean News

Which of these two groups do you think would know the whereabouts of sharks better: local dive guides or professional marine biologists?

In a new paper in PLoS ONE, marine researchers in Australia report on the reliability of data collected by experienced SCUBA divers. Can amateurs report observations of sharks accurately?

The researcher did not actually compare observations of experienced SCUBA divers to professional observations. That answer will remain debatable. The researchers compared relative abundance of sharks estimated by dive guides to estimates by passive acoustic tagging and telemetry. They used data from 62 dive guides during over 2,000 dives on coral reefs in Palau, Micronesia for 5 years. Dive guides reporting on the dive site, date, species, counts, estimated depth, current, visibility, and number of tourist divers in the group.

Time and again, when leisure and science intersect, we gain new knowledge. There is a long history in some disciplines, like astronomy and ornithology. During the Victorian era, large-scale citizen science advanced understanding of the ocean and tidal environments. And yet, to this day doubts apparently remain as to its efficacy.

I’ve seen over 50 studies that address issues of data quality and study design related to observations by volunteers with various hobbies. Birds. Lady beetles. Moths. Wolves. Trees. Air pollution. Contrails. Light pollution. Damselflies. Water quality. Plants. Pikas.Frogs. Snails. Invasive plants. Bees. These are only a modicum of the areas where we have learned that expertise is not confined to professionals. In each of these instances, amateurs can be experts.

This is not brain surgery. Or citizen vasectomies (thank you, Dr. Isis). Many fields and certain tasks require specific training and practice.

I’m talking about enthusiasts who enjoy observing the natural world, and frequently they become experts at observing it. Their observations can be useful for scientific goals when used appropriately.

In this context, researchers can stop asking the question, ‘can citizen scientists collect reliable data?’ Citizen science volunteers have repeatedly proven to be reliable, careful, and enthusiastic (and probably better than your novice undergraduate intern). The reasonable questions to ask are the same as for any field study, such as: ‘what data collection protocol works best?’, ‘how can we deal with sampling biases?’, and ‘how can we obtain the necessary sample sizes?’

This is not to trivialize the assessment of methods for citizen science. If recreational divers do not follow rigorous protocols, their observations may not be useful due to rounding bias, inflation bias, or misidentifications.

There are over 1,000 species of elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), and there is not enough information on almost half of those to assess their extinction risk. The lack of information on so many species prompted the desire of researchers to fill these data gaps with observations by dive guides ... 

Continue reading the full article on the PloSONE blog

Citizen science design allows scientific practices to benefit from the expertise of amateurs.

Photo credit: Katrien Vandevelde, Socorro June 2013

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