The Role of Citizen Science in Ocean Governance

In: The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development
John A. Cigliano Department of Biological Sciences, Cedar Crest College, Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park, Winter Harbor, Maine, United States

Search for other papers by John A. Cigliano in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access

What Is Old Is New

Over 40 years ago, Professor Elisabeth Mann Borgese recognized the need for effective governance of the oceans for the good of all of humanity. This need still exists, maybe even more so now, in addressing issues such as climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, and floating islands of trash (to name just a few). But what can we do to advance effective and lasting governance of the ocean? Are there new techniques, policies, or international agreements that we can employ? Actually, I would argue that something as old as recorded history is one of our better hopes, namely, citizen science.

Citizen science is public participation in scientific research, i.e., science conducted by amateurs. Prior to the late nineteenth century, almost all of science was conducted by amateurs (today, we would call them citizen scientists). Quite a few of these so-called amateurs have had a profound effect on science: Aristotle, Copernicus, and Darwin, to name a few. Darwin is of particular note, not only because of his theory of evolution by natural selection, but because as he was developing and working to experimentally support his theory, he collaborated with other citizen scientists from around the world who sent him observations and specimens, thus, making Darwin an early adopter of ‘crowdsourcing’1 citizen science.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, amateur scientists became marginalized as the number of professional scientists increased and gained positions of authority.2 Fortunately, citizen science did not go extinct. Citizen science projects continued with professional scientists leading and citizen scientists contributing. Examples include Wells Cooke’s collaboration with citizen scientists (he referred to them as co-operative observers) on bird migration from 1881 to his death in 1916.3 But there were still examples of the ‘old’ citizen science. For ocean science and governance, the most notable example is Jacques Cousteau. No one can deny the influence Cousteau had (and still has) on marine biology, conservation, public awareness, and stewardship.

Today, citizen science is not just surviving, it is thriving,4 though the use of marine and coastal citizen science for conservation has lagged behind its use in freshwater and terrestrial systems.5 But it is growing. And it has made a difference.

Citizen Science and Ocean Governance

To develop effective ocean governance, it is critical to increase our understanding of the effects of stressors on marine species and ecosystems. No stressor will likely have as much of an impact on our ocean as climate change, in both magnitude and scope. Citizen scientists are helping to increase our understanding on how coastal ecosystems are being affected and are helping to develop mitigation strategies. For example, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) collects information on beached seabirds in the US Pacific Northwest, which has helped to understand the mechanism(s) of elevated mortality and/or beaching caused by climate forcing.6 In the Gazi Bay Project, local stakeholders in Kenya, in collaboration with professional scientists, conduct long-term and large-scale experiments on mangrove restoration, which has led to the planting and monitoring of over 20,000 trees and the development of the first community-led blue carbon project.7

However, to really have a significant effect on ocean governance, citizen science must influence policy and management. Townhill and Hyder argue that one of the greatest promises of marine and coastal citizen science is in the support of policy, legislation, and management because the issues that need to be addressed are at large spatial and temporal scales.8 One of the advantages of citizen science is the ability to collect large amounts of data in time and space. The Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) Project in the United Kingdom is an example of how citizen science has influenced policy. Citizen scientists monitor waterbirds, and the information collected has been used to designate protected areas and to inform environmental impact assessments.9 Citizen science also informs the management of marine protected areas (MPAs) in California, United States. California adopted a two-phased approach to monitoring: regional baseline monitoring and statewide long-term monitoring. Citizen scientists from multiple organizations play a significant role in conducting baseline surveys throughout the state. Data from the monitoring programs are used to determine management effectiveness of the MPAs.10

Ultimately, our best hope for effective and long-lasting ocean governance is through building capacity for stewardship in local communities, and through public awareness and education to encourage local and global governance. Citizen science has been effective in both. An example of effective capacity-building is the One People One Reef (Hofagie Laamle) project, located in the Federated States of Micronesia. The project was initiated by the local community of Falalop Island of Ulithi Atoll because of concerns about declining fisheries and reef degradation. It has now expanded to communities on all of the inhabited islands of the atoll. Professional scientists, who were invited to participate by local community leaders, and local citizen scientists work together to collect ecological and fisheries data. This project is a true collaboration: the local citizen scientists share their knowledge of their reefs, which has framed the research program, and the professional scientists train local scientists on how to collect data, share the data from the research, and interpret the data with community leaders. The information gained from the research has informed management plans, which were developed and implemented by the local communities. An unexpected and welcomed consequence of the project was a renewed interest in traditional practices and cultural history related to fishing and management.11

Many conservation-related citizen science projects have educational component and public awareness goals. Often the focus is on school children, such as the Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students (LiMPETS) program that engages schoolchildren in sandy beach and intertidal monitoring in California. The goals of this program are to increase ocean and science literacy in schoolchildren, to develop a long-term dataset that can be used by researchers and resource managers (LiMPETS conducts baseline surveys as part of the management plan for California MPAs, see above), and to encourage students to become environmental leaders and stewards. LiMPETS accomplishes this by engaging local schoolchildren and their teachers fully in the scientific process, from data collection to analysis and presentation.12

There are also quite a few programs that are using technology to raise awareness and to educate on a regional or global scale. Redmap (Range Extension Database and Mapping Project) focuses on Australia.13 The project has two main goals: (1) ecological monitoring to provide an early indication of potential species range shifts along the coasts of Australia by collaborating with citizen scientists who report observations of marine species that are uncommon to a particular location, and (2) actively engaging the marine and broader community in a constructive dialogue on marine climate change. The Redmap team does this virtually (through the website and webinars) and in person; it regularly makes presentations and holds question and answer sessions at various venues around Australia (e.g., boat shows, fishing competitions, dive clubs, schools, and marine community festivals). As of 2016, Redmap’s website had almost one million visitors, was featured in over 245 media reports, and received five major awards for community engagement and scientific excellence.14

The Need for and Potential of Citizen Science for Effective and Lasting Ocean Governance

Professor Mann Borgese was obviously correct about the need for effective and lasting ocean governance. Citizen science can help bring this about. But while there have been significant advances in the use of citizen science to support ocean governance, it has not reached its full potential. So now, what can we do to ensure that citizen science does reach its full potential? Here are a few recommendations.

  1. 1.Purposely engage key stakeholders such as beachgoers, recreational and commercial fishers, divers and snorkelers, surfers, and boaters. These are people who have an interest or stake in the health of marine and coastal systems and who are passionate about, connected to, or feel responsibility for the oceans and coast near and far from their own homes. Engaging these stakeholders helps to ensure that information from citizen science projects will be acted upon, by the stakeholders becoming better stewards themselves and possibly by becoming leaders in efforts to change policy. And when communities are engaged, there is potential for relatively quick and broad advances in governance.15
  2. 2.Increase public awareness through education and public outreach. Engaging young school children could be especially fruitful. The oft-used phrase that ‘our children are our future’ is true. Engaging communities directly in citizen science projects or in public awareness activities that are based on the project can be very effective in raising awareness, and I would argue, should be part of every citizen science project. A particularly promising way to virtually engage and educate large numbers of citizen scientists over large areas is through the use of smartphone technology. There have been significant advances over the last several years in using smartphones to take and upload photos, and in the development and use of smartphone apps. Many projects that engage citizen scientists in this way have associated websites and social media platforms to build community and to educate and raise awareness.16 Projects that directly engage citizen scientists also use websites and social media to build community and raise awareness.17
  3. 3.Engage policy-makers and managers in projects as citizen scientists. Co-creating projects or collaborating with policy-makers and managers can be especially effective for advancing ocean governance.18 After all, these are the people who will make and enact governance policy. Engaging with them will not only allow them to see the issues that are affecting the ocean up close, but it will also build trust between them and professional scientists. And it could increase the likelihood that they will use the findings of citizen science projects to inform policy and management (e.g., overcoming the doubt about data quality).19

Citizen science has and still can contribute significantly to effective and lasting ocean governance. Of course, it alone cannot fulfill Professor Mann Borgese’s hope for an ocean that is effectively governed for all of us. But it can, and should, be a major part of our efforts to fulfill her hope.


Crowdsourcing is the process of obtaining data by soliciting contributions from a large, undefined network of people.


J. Vetter, “Introduction: Lay Participation in the History of Scientific Observations,” Science in Context 24, no. 2 (2011): 129.


T.S. Palmer, “In Memoriam: Wells Woodbridge Cooke. Born Jan. 25, 1858–Died March 30, 1916,” The Auk 34, no. 2 (1917): 119–132.


J.A. Cigliano and H.L. Ballard, “The Promise of and the Need for Coastal and Marine Citizen Science,” in Citizen Science for Coastal and Marine Conservation, eds., J.A. Cigliano and H.L. Ballard (New York: Routledge, 2017), 3–15 at 4.


J.A. Cigliano et al., “Making Marine and Coastal Citizen Science Matter,” Ocean & Coastal Management 115 (2015): 77–87,


J.K. Parrish et al., “Defining the Baseline and Tracking Change in Seabird Populations: The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST),” in Cigliano and Ballard, supra note 4, 19–38.


J.A. Cousins, M. Huxham and D. Winton, “Using Citizen Science to Address Conservation Issues Related to Climate Change and Coastal Systems,” in Cigliano and Ballard, id., 19–39 at 19–33.


B.L. Townhill and K. Hyder, “Citizen Science and Marine Policy,” in Cigliano and Ballard, id., 178–193 at 178–179.


“The Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS),” British Trust for Ornithology,


R. Meyer, E. Meyer, L. Sievanen and A. Freitag, “Using Citizen Science to Inform Ocean and Coastal Resource Management,” in Cigliano and Ballard, supra note 4, 132–152 at 136–147.


N.L. Crane et al., “Collaborating with Indigenous Citizen Scientists Towards Sustainable Coral Reef Management in a Changing World: The One People One Reef Program,” in Cigliano and Ballard, id., 197–216.


A. Wasser, “Engaging Youth and Schools in Coastal Citizen Science: Balancing both Education and Science Goals,” in Cigliano and Ballard, id., 218–236.


For an example of a global program, see Marine Debris Tracker,


E.J. Hind-Ozan, G.T. Pecl and C.A. Ward-Paige, “Communication and Trust-building with the Broader Public through Marine and Coastal Citizen Science,” in Cigliano and Ballard, supra note 4, 261–278 at 264–268.


Supra note 11.


Some additional examples include flukebook ( and Secchi Disk (


Supra note 5.


Supra note 5.

  • Collapse
  • Expand

The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development

Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Mann Borgese (1918-2002)