Evaluating the usefulness of citizen science for natural resource management in marine environments

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Management of marine natural resources and ecosystems is relying increasingly on the engagement of members of the public to collect environmental monitoring data for application in research and marine decision-making processes. Despite an accumulating body of work which discusses the potential benefits of engaging members of the public in marine environmental monitoring for better decision-making, there is no published analysis of whether, in fact the data collected by the public are used. The aim of this research was to assess the utility of citizen science data for marine natural resource management in Australia. This was accomplished by an investigation into the development of the field of ‘citizen science’ and its potential place within community participation frameworks for sustainability and environmental management. It also reviewed the perceived benefits and challenges to the use of citizen science in the natural sciences and discussed its potential uses and influence on environmental policy and management. A validation study was undertaken to evaluate seagrass condition data collected by volunteers using field and computer-based sampling methods. Citizen scientists (volunteer SCUBA divers) did not differ from experts (professional marine scientists) in their estimates of % occurrence of seagrasses and sand (from video transects), however, they differed in a more complex task of estimating % cover of seagrass and other habitat features (from photoquadrats). Experts differed in their estimates of % cover from photoquadrats, indicating methods require review and may have contributed to volunteer results. Citizen scientists found the computer-based activities helpful in expanding their knowledge on scientific processes and essential for evaluating and modifying techniques used in their monitoring protocol. This evidence further supports the inclusion of volunteer SCUBA divers in scientific research (including seagrass condition monitoring) and highlights the importance of also validating professionals prior to training volunteers. Results of a questionnaire distributed to researchers, managers, community support organisations and community members across Australia demonstrated that citizen science is being used for decision-making in Australia, as well as for high-quality research. More than 70% of respondents (n=185) reported having used citizen science-collected data for natural resource management decisions or research, with 53 programs producing 72 peer-reviewed publications and 110 technical reports. Where scientists and the public are working together, citizen science is a powerful research tool that has an added benefit of expanding the individual well-being of the participants involved. This study has also been able to demonstrate that citizen science is achieving its purported use of data for decision-making, and additional documented cases are likely to arise as the field gains trust.
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