Searching For The Sea: Beach Watch at 25
The scientist peered into her computer, intent on the latest entries from her team of highly trained coastal field surveyors. She was on the hunt for treasure: not hidden, but right there, on the beach, or flying by, or perched on nearshore rocks. The coded names for feathered and flippered sea creatures they’d encountered, transcribed from scrawled entries on sand-gritty data sheets, became solid statistics that would reveal whether “things” were normal in our ocean ecosystem. Entry by entry, their findings would be folded into the growing Beach Watch database, and correlated with at-sea observations and offshore buoy data uplinked via satellite. It would be discussed, debated and shared with scientists at conferences and online, regionally and sometimes globally. Trends among common species were reflected there, but also some real eye-openers: rare and exotic species like a tropical Masked Booby, a striped dolphin, or a leatherback turtle. These discoveries are the long-term work of Greater Farallones Beach Watch, now celebrating a quarter-century of sleuthing for science.
NOAA’s Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary protects over 3,000 square miles of ocean off North-central California, and its management must constantly look for changes in the marine ecosystem. How to do this? Evidence of distant offshore conditions can often be found where the land meets the sea. Some years, unusually warm water “events” cause starving seabirds and seals to strand, or visibly weaken kelp forests. In other years, our cool, swift-flowing California current produces bountiful food for seabirds and whales, and deposits surfborne sand to craft low, sloping haulouts, ideal habitat for breeding seals.
Along this coast a group of citizen scientists -- the volunteer surveyors of Farallones Beach Watch -- detect and record these conditions. Then, the Farallones’ professional biologists “scrub” the raw data to ensure quality control; they analyze it, and determine its significance.
Starting Line: In 1993, following a series of disastrous oil spills, NOAA established Beach Watch as a long-term shoreline monitoring program. A quarter-century later, biologists from the federal sanctuary staff and the nonprofit Greater Farallones Association continue to recruit, train, and supervise this corps of volunteer scientists. Decades of surveys have established a baseline that includes marine species encountered, both alive and dead; and numerous oil spills and other atypical phenomena. These surveyors become experts on their specific beaches’ shorebirds and other wildlife, and their seasonal changes. And they document how homo sapiens use the coast, for work and for recreation. Using this baseline, Beach Watch identifies early signs of change, and tracks them over time. By documenting annual erosion and deposition patterns, Beach Watch provides scientists, engineers, and managers with tools that will help coastal communities adapt to shifting shorelines and sea levels. It’s a classic “forewarned is forearmed” approach to management – a necessary strategy on a changing planet.
Return on Investment: The sanctuary now has a clearer understanding of how influences like climate and human activities impact nearly all aspects of the ocean. Even now, Beach Watch continues to detect lingering impacts of old shipwrecks, and of the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay. Over the years, its data have been used as evidence to secure over $52 million to restore injured wildlife and habitats from these accidents’ “responsible parties.” Beach Watch has been emulated internationally, and praised by the Senate and the Assembly.
For this past quarter-century, Beach Watch has been a model program wherein scores of citizens have become active and effective stewards of our oceans. Working with our sanctuary scientists, they augment and amplify our vital work of marine conservation.
So – Happy 25th Anniversary! to the scientists and community of Beach Watch! With your help we can work more confidently, and more effectively, to ensure the future health of our Blue Planet.