Citizen science: It takes a village

Volunteers help researchers expand knowledge of nature


Community volunteers have been helping to advance science from their own backyard.

Whether it’s submitting Did You Feel It? reports for earthquakes, helping to sample for ocean water quality, planting native species or sending in photos of hawksbill sea turtles or manta rays, Maui volunteers are “a critical part” to conservation projects and being a source for new findings for a variety of topics.

“I think it’s a great way for people to get involved,” said John Starmer, chief scientist for the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council and volunteer coordinator at City Nature Challenge, Maui branch.

“You can help scientists understand how earthquakes work, how climate change happens, where endangered species are showing up or not showing up.”

Dating back to the 1800s, citizen science gets people involved with learning about the environment in which they live, improves science literacy, provides opportunities to take a meaningful role in scientific research, allows scientists themselves to interact with the community and helps the scientists to ask questions and discover insight at scales that would not be feasible without community involvement, Starmer said Wednesday.


Starmer has been coordinating the City Nature Challenge, where Maui residents can take part by downloading the app, observing wildlife and searching for biodiversity, and submitting their findings.

The challenge started in 2016 as a competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but has since grown into an international event, motivating people around the world to find and document wildlife in their cities, he said.

From April 29 to May 2, participants take photos of wild plants and animals and from May 3 to May 8, participants identify what they found, with winners announced on May 9.

In 2021 over the four-day competition, more than 52,000 people participated in the challenge, over 1 million observations were made, about 45,000 species were found and over 1,300 rare, endangered or threatened species were documented. 

“The primary goal really has become what can we do to help grow and understand our knowledge about biodiversity wherever we happen to be,” he said.

Jennifer Vander Veur is the senior program manager for Coral Reef Alliance of Maui Maui Nui Marine Resource Council Photos

Nonprofit Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, which hosted its Know Your Ocean Speaker Series on Wednesday night, relies upon citizen volunteers for its Hui O Ka Wai Ola ocean water quality monitoring program at 29 locations along Maui’s shores.

Similarly, Pacific Whale Foundation’s Adopt a Beach Program is made possible by volunteers who choose to look after a beach for one year and conduct 12 cleanups throughout that year in order to keep the area debris-free.

The annual Great Whale Count is another volunteer-based program that is part of a long-term survey of humpback whales in Hawaii.

Mark Deakos, founder and chief scientist of the Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research, discussed on Wednesday his manta ray photo-identification catalog of over 600 rays — these creatures that frequent Maui Nui waters are distinctly different from those off Hawaii island.

About 25 years ago, however, there was not a lot of information on Maui’s mantas. Some of Deakos’ work since then has resulted in cataloging the largest known manta ray population in the U.S., which resides off Maui. 

In 2016, more and more photos from residents, specifically in South Maui, were “filling a missing cohort of the population” by adding new individuals to the database, he said.

“Scientists can’t be everywhere at all times,” said Deakos, noting that volunteers interested in marine wildlife and the environment have been valuable to the research behind manta rays’ behavior, size, genetics, age and more.

Over time, Deakos said that avid citizen scientists are becoming more familiar with mantas and are able to report other noteworthy behaviors and identify gender.

“We really appreciate those citizen scientists contributing to that,” he said. “It’s been a huge boost to better understanding the mantas.”

Still, very little is known about the population on Oahu and Kauai, which is why citizen scientists have been sought as the research center builds a catalog for those islands. There are currently 65 known mantas in Oahu waters and 19 recorded in Kauai shores.

Cheryl King said that citizen science has also been beneficial for her two projects: SHARKastics, which involves marine debris research and cleanups, and Hawaiian Hawksbill Conservation, the statewide in-water photo-identification catalog for 309 critically endangered Hawaiian hawksbill sea turtles, which has been ongoing since 1998.

The conservation group and volunteers have removed 9,434 pounds of trash from Maui’s reefs from 2017 to 2021. Over 2,000 pounds of debris collected included fishing line and rope, which are the biggest threats to turtles, King said. 

Through SHARKastics, 27.6 tons of marine debris has been removed since July 2012 and over 560,000 pieces have been counted.

Removing trash, from microplastics to ghost nets, and learning the impacts of polluted reefs takes an army of volunteers, she added.

Beach cleanups take place every fourth Sunday of the month, with the next one scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon April 24 at Ka’ehu beach.

There are many ways to get involved, such as sending in photo IDs of hawksbill turtles, taken from 10 feet away; removeing trash from the beach; reporting animals that are in trouble; planting native species or removed invasive ones; volunteering to restore habitats and more.

King is also a seabird biology technician with the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project, which presents volunteer opportunities with seabirds and colony restoration.

Project Manager Jay Penniman said that in order to capture, band and record data about Maui Nui’s native Hawaiian petrels, as well as count colonies to understand their stability, they needed volunteers.

“We trained community members, adults and children alike, to grab birds to hold them for the bander and we trained folks on how to record data on tablets,” Penniman said. “Some long-term citizens have even been trained for banding.”

Funding and dedicated volunteers have helped to remove alien weeds and predators that pose threats to the ua’u kani colonies, he added.

“We really rely on community partners to help us,” said Senior Program Manager Jennifer Vander Veur of the Coral Reef Alliance of Maui. “All of our implementation is done with community volunteers.”

In addition to county, state and federal stakeholders, the program works with local schools and local volunteers to help plant native vegetation at key locations near coastal streams, which act as natural barriers and trap sediment runoff before it reaches the ocean and coral reefs.  Citizen scientists also help to record data and maintain their greenhouse for out-planting.

“Our work on Maui is focused on trying to find out ways we can reduce the inundation of sediment or dirt onto our reefs and the damaging impacts it has,” she added.

During the COVID-19 pandemic when group restoration projects were halted, the organization created at-home planting kits and asked volunteers to track and record growth.

“Together we can make a difference, not only for our coral reefs but for our community,” she said.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.


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