Holly Hughes speaks to Karin Dubsky, the founder of Coastwatch about how we can all get involved in citizen science …
After three years of writing this column, I have come to adopt some fundamental truths when it comes to making an environmental difference. The first is that people work best when they work together. The second is that bringing conservation or climate action into our lives needn’t require inordinate sacrifice, time, or experience. And the third is that the more time we can spend engaging with the natural world, the better protectors of it we will be.
Speaking to Karin Dubsky, the founder of Coastwatch (a voluntary organisation renowned for establishing one of the most impressive coastal monitoring initiatives in the world), only further consolidated these views. Hearing about how citizen science (a process in which members of the public volunteer to collect data for scientific research) drives legislation that better protects biodiversity in Ireland while mitigating or reducing further climate damage, reminded me of how, even though each individual drop of change we make in the ocean of our personal lives is urgently important, it’s in collective action that true revolution and hope can be realised.
Karin Dubsky, founder of Coastwatch.
For Coastwatch, collective action happens in their annual survey, a kind of eco-audit of Irish shorelines. “The coastal survey is where we invite members of the public, whether they have any previous knowledge or not, to book 500m of shore and walk it once in the autumn at low tide and tell us what they found,” Karin explains.
Armed with a questionnaire and simple test kit that checks for nitrates, volunteers sally forth to investigate their local coastline, feeding this information back to Coastwatch who collate it into national and European research. This research then mobilises Coastwatch and other organisations to advocate for better environmental policies that protect biodiversity and deliver on climate action.
We often mistakenly think that to be “activists” we need to be possessed of swathes of free time and inordinate amounts of expertise or knowledge. Coastwatch’s survey proves this to be untrue. “You give a day a year of whatever expertise you have,” Karin says. Guided by identification tools and a survey questionnaire, this isn’t a huge burden, particularly when shared among friends or family.
This accessibility also opens the door to a much more collaborative and holistic approach to solving climate, environment, and biodiversity problems. “You can have a huge amount of knowledge coming from a fisherman who may have left school at the age of twelve but has way more knowledge about how things work locally, what the sea is doing, than many scientists going into that area.”
In fact, it is Coastwatch’s miscellany that makes it so impactful: the diversity of its volunteers and the myriad outlooks, values, and backgrounds that they bring is what has facilitated some of the organisation’s biggest successes.
Citizen science offers so much to any individual with an interest in the world around them.
Take the introduction of Ireland’s plastic bag levy in 2002. It was Coastwatch volunteers who reported the horrifying proliferation of plastic bag pollution on Irish shores in their annual surveys, turned these reports into quantifiable research, and then used this research to demand government legislation to combat it.
“We brought the evidence. We said how many plastic shopping bags we found and how they were increasing. We found a leatherback turtle that had found a plastic bag and choked on it,” Karin explains.
When the levy was eventually brought in, it was the multi-faceted thinking of Coastwatch volunteers who ensured that the tax wouldn’t just reduce plastic bag usage, it would also actively support the environmental projects of local authorities. All money raised from the plastic bag levy goes directly to a government Environment Fund. With this thinking, it wasn’t one problem that was tackled; it was – and continues to be – many.
Another interesting phenomenon occurred when Coastwatch launched its seagrass monitoring campaign in 2021. Seagrass – a plant that prevents erosion and works as both carbon sequester and carbon store – isn’t legally protected in Ireland at present and is largely unknown, despite holding invaluable importance for biodiversity and climate change. To combat this lack of public and political consciousness, Coastwatch launched an awareness campaign, asking the public to report any sightings of it.
“We had some wonderful results,” Karin says. One of the most important being that, with a deluge of confirmed sightings, Coastwatch was able to build an enormous inventory of seagrass locations that transcended any government data and is now being used to advocate for protective legislation.
However, what was most inspiring about this campaign wasn’t the incredible amount of knowledge accrued or the fact that it came from ordinary people noticing and appreciating the world surrounding them. It’s the collective responsibility it cultivated.
Where legal protection remains lacking for seagrass, local protection has stepped up. Those who successfully identified seagrass and learnt of its magical properties are now so proud of their seagrass beds that they’re stalwartly protecting them. And that, as Karin enthuses, is really something.
Stimulating curiosity, contributing to science, and engaging with a diverse community of passionate people, citizen science offers so much to any individual with an interest in the world around them. And it couldn’t be easier to get involved. Signing up to Coastwatch’s annual survey is one way to take an active role in protecting our coastlines. However, monitoring is only one facet of Coastwatch’s work so be sure to check out their website for other projects you can support (particularly upcoming events for World Wetlands Day, on Thursday, February 2).
Other monitoring and data collecting initiatives are also available around Ireland. For insect and bird-watching enthusiasts, the National Biodiversity Data Centre hosts monitoring schemes for butterflies, bumblebees, dragonflies, and marine life. They also support other wildlife monitoring projects. Or check out Citizen Science Ireland to learn more about citizen science initiatives around Ireland.
Because, while the indefatigable energy and hope of people like Karin are integral to organisations like Coastwatch, these movements couldn’t exist without their volunteers. As Karin tells me, “What I love most are the huge numbers of people you can speak to at the same time in citizen science. As scientists we are trained a certain way. People who aren’t scientists, or are working as scientists in different disciplines have a different way of looking at it – they ask different questions. It’s hugely enriching.”
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