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CZ-Tip - Sign Up for Coastal Citizen Science

Find ways to get to, protect, and enjoy the coast with tips from the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM).

Volunteers play an important role in advancing scientific knowledge about the Massachusetts coast. Community-based data collection helps fill gaps left by government, private, and nonprofit groups with limited funds to research, explore, and protect vast natural systems. Professional scientists can now use the increasingly popular citizen-science programs, online reporting, and smartphone applications to gather data on the status, condition, and overall health of the state’s ecosystems and wildlife. From monitoring water quality, counting birds, sighting sea animals, contributing photographs, or recording trash on the beach, citizen scientists are a valuable part of the action. And no previous experience is necessary—any required training is provided directly or easily accessed on the relevant app or online platform. So go mobilize for a few hours, a few days, or an entire season to contribute to the collective knowledge of our natural world!

The citizen-science opportunities listed below are organized into these topic areas:

  • Plants, Animals, and Habitats
  • Invasive Species
  • Salt Marshes and Water Quality
  • Shorelines and Storms
  • Marine Debris

Plants, Animals, and Habitats

Birds - Contribute observations to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird platform and be a part of the largest shared global effort to map bird ranges. Every image (and sound!) added to an eBird checklist becomes part of the Macaulay Library and contributes to science that protects birds. In addition, become part of the nation's longest-running, community-science bird project by joining the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which occurs December 14 to January 5 each year (check out this map to find a scheduled count near you).

Herring - From April through June, count river herring (blueback herring and alewife) at various stations around Massachusetts to help gather information for herring recovery efforts. The data, used by the Division of Marine Fisheries, provide important information about the run size and behavior of herring and the relationship of these species to the health of the watersheds, rivers, and ocean. Check out the following organizations and their herring runs to participate in counts or help install/remove electronic fish counters.

Horseshoe Crabs - Take part in annual horseshoe crab spawning surveys in May and June and help determine whether regulations are working to protect crabs in Duxbury Bay. Learn fascinating facts while you collect data, like how horseshoe crabs mix up sediment and add oxygen back into the mudflats, their eggs provide a crucial food source for migrating shorebirds, and a compound in their blood is used to test for bacterial contamination. Help protect these creatures by assisting the North and South Rivers Watershed Association (the South Shore regional partner of MassBays) and Division of Marine Fisheries with day- or night-time surveys of crabs coming ashore. See the North and South Rivers Watershed Association Horseshoe Crab Monitoring page for details.

Marine Animals - Collect data for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) through Ocean Alert, a new mobile data collection application for reporting large marine animal sightings, such as sea turtles, sharks, and whales. Collected data help BOEM plan offshore energy and mineral development in ways that lessen the potential impacts to these species and their habitats. To download the app, search for “Ocean Alert” in the Apple App Store or Google Play.

Nature and Biodiversity - Find and document plants and wildlife (including insects!) in your own home, backyard, and neighborhood as part of the Boston Area City Nature Challenge. In the spring of each year, individuals and families in eastern Massachusetts are encouraged to take photographs with their cameras or smartphones, post their observations on iNaturalist, and help confirm other identifications. The challenge, which is part of a global effort to document urban biodiversity, is also a bioblitz-style competition where cities engage in a friendly rivalry to observe and identify the most species and engage the most citizen scientists (note: during COVID, the City Nature Challenge has pivoted to be a collaboration, rather than a competition, to safely document biodiversity).

Plants and Wildlife of the Boston Harbor Islands - Participate in the National Park Service’s Citizen Scientists program to help collect data on plants and wildlife on the Boston Harbor Islands. Volunteer opportunities include working with park staff on specific bird monitoring efforts, a biodiversity inventory, a baseline assessment for monitoring the effects of climate change on island plants and habitats over time, and an early pest detection survey to monitor and respond to invasive plants, animals, and insects.

Rare Species and Vernal Pools - The Heritage Hub from the MassWildlife Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program allows citizen scientists, consultants, and researchers to report rare species, vernal pools, and natural communities that are then reviewed and verified by biologists to help determine densities and distributions across the state. Collected data help provide important information on habitat use, landscape features, and changes in species historic ranges. First-time users will need to create an account to use the system. Organizations can also create accounts and invite their members to join for a more collaborative experience.

Seabirds - Report beached (i.e., dead) seabirds to help the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET) identify the species and detect and reduce threats to these birds. Upload your beach-walk survey data (conducted on a stretch of beach at least 1 kilometer long, 1-2 times per month) to the online Anecdata portal, and help contribute baseline information to the largest coordinated monitoring program of beached birds along the East Coast.

Sunfish and Basking Sharks - Report sightings to the New England Basking Shark & Ocean Sunfish Project, a community-sighting network for these two fish species commonly sighted in the waters off New England. Submit sighting data and photographs to contribute to the comprehensive database that helps scientists better understand their population size, distribution, and movements. The New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance also welcomes sightings of torpedo rays, thresher sharks, diamondback terrapins, and box turtles.

Whales - Download the Whale Alert app on your smartphone or tablet to collect and submit whale observation data. Created by the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and now part of a network of nonprofit institutions, government agencies, and shipping and technology companies, the app displays whale "safety zones" and allows users to report any live, dead, or distressed whale sightings to the appropriate response agency, providing useful data to help reduce lethal ship strikes of whales.

Wrack Line on the Beach - Help Massachusetts Bays National Estuary Partnership document resident and visiting species in the bits of seaweed and grasses left behind as the tide recedes. As part of the “What’s in the Wrack?” Data Quest associated with the Boston Area City Nature Challenge and Zoo New England, upload photos to the #MassWrack iNaturalist page and help researchers discover more about where wrack remains, the types of vegetation that make up the wrack line, and which creatures are using the wrack as habitat. See the species field guide to help get started with species identification. Other Data Quests, such as on Oysters and Invasive Species, also welcome participants.

Invasive Species

Invasive and Native Marine Species - As part of CZM’s Marine Invader Monitoring and Information Collaborative (MIMIC), citizen scientists are encouraged to take photographs of introduced and native marine species and add them to the MIMIC iNaturalist page. Or for a longer-term endeavor, join a MIMIC volunteer group—where trained volunteers monitor marine invasive species at over 60 sites from Massachusetts to Maine. Before getting started, familiarize yourself with 18 of the most common marine invasives in New England with these Identification Cards, review this Story Map of Marine Invasive Monitoring Data, and see this MIMIC Fact Sheet (PDF, 98 KB). Find a local volunteer group and training opportunities at MIMIC member organizations by contacting CZM’s marine invasive species program at marine.invasives@mass.gov.

Invasive Plants - Join the Nature’s Notebook: Pesky Plant Trackers campaign to report initial growth, flowering, and fruiting of two non-native invasive species in the Northeast: wild parsnip and Japanese knotweed. Create an account, receive online training, select an observation site, and then report data into the online reporting system. The data collected will help researchers understand how the plants respond to climate conditions and support land management efforts to control these invasive species. Nature’s Notebook also welcomes observations of plants and animals (more than 1,000 species have available protocols) or contributions made by local Phenology Monitoring Programs.

Salt Marshes and Water Quality

Salt Marshes - See the following local salt marsh monitoring opportunities to join an effort to collect and record data on salt marsh health and help advance the understanding and protection of these complex systems. (And CZM’s A Volunteer's Handbook for Monitoring New England Salt Marshes [PDF, 5 MB] is a useful reference for collecting and recording data on salt marsh health in a consistent and scientifically sound manner. )

  • Mass Audubon Salt Marsh Science Project - If you are a school group on the North Shore, collect salt marsh data that helps inform local, state, and federal protection and restoration efforts. Students will monitor the growth of common reed in salt marshes, study the effect of salinity levels, assess tidal restrictions, sample fish populations above and below tidal restrictions, and gain a better understanding of the fascinating salt marsh ecosystem.
  • Salem Sound Salt Marsh Protection and Restoration Program - Monitor salt marsh systems and evaluate salt marsh restorations with Salem Sound Coastwatch. Volunteers help look for evidence of habitat degradation and biological impairment by sampling fish and aquatic macroinvertebrates, identifying vegetation and birds, and measuring salinity and tidal influence.
  • South Shore Salt Marsh Sentinels - Dock owners can help the North and South Rivers Watershed Association gather data on how sea level rise is affecting salt marsh vegetation and salt marsh migration on their properties.

Water Quality - Join a local organization to help monitor the health of harbors, coves, rivers, and estuaries across the state by collecting water samples and testing for bacteria, temperature, salinity, nutrients, dissolved oxygen, and other parameters. The data collected help scientists and policymakers determine how human activities and management actions affect surrounding water bodies. Learn more by attending a training session offered by one of the following regional organizations (if one is not listed in your area, see the Mass.gov’s Water Quality Monitoring for Volunteers Guide for further information and contacts).

  • Baywatchers Program - Collect water samples from over 200 monitoring stations in 30 major harbors, coves, and rivers across Buzzards Bay to help identify pollution sources through this Buzzards Bay Coalition program.
  • Cape Cod National Seashore Water Sampling Volunteer - Travel to the national seashore's six swimming beaches from Eastham to Provincetown to collect water samples and record weather conditions.
  • Charles River Monthly Monitors - Collect water samples, measure water temperature and depth, and record river conditions at assigned sampling locations for the Charles River Watershed Association to better understand stormwater impacts and sewage contamination. For another fun option, join their Benthic Macroinvertebrate Monitors to dig in the mud and collect critters that help gauge waterbody health.
  • RiverWatch - Ipswich River - From March through December, collect data on weather conditions, recent rainfall, and water quality parameters at 35 sites throughout the Ipswich River watershed and beyond. The Ipswich River Watershed Association also offers volunteer macroinvertebrate monitoring and streamflow monitoring programs.
  • RiverWatch - North and South Rivers - Connect with the North and South Rivers Watershed Association to help monitor water quality at 10 sites along the rivers for compliance with swimming and shellfishing water quality standards.
  • Salem Sound Clean Beaches and Streams Program - Help Salem Sound Coastwatch monitor water quality at local beaches, streams, and outfall pipes within Salem Sound and Massachusetts Bay. These water quality samples provide useful data to help reduce public exposure to bacterial water pollution at area beaches.
  • South Shore and Cape Cod Water Quality Monitoring Program - Sample water quality at 20 sites from Provincetown to Plymouth with the Center for Coastal Studies. Test for a variety of indicators of eutrophication, algal blooms, and other water quality problems.
  • Three Bays Estuary Sampling - Volunteer with the Barnstable Clean Water Coalition and UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology to collect water samples from West, North, and Cotuit Bays. The samples are tested for fecal coliform and nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, helping to pinpoint suspected septic system leaks into surrounding waters.

Shorelines and Storms

Shoreline Change on Cape Cod and the Islands - If you are a Cape Codder or Islander, take a ride over to Town Neck Beach in Sandwich or State Beach in Oak Bluffs to take pictures for CoastSnap, a campaign launched by Woods Hole Sea Grant that includes a network of simple camera mounts for the public to take photos and upload them to social media. Crowdsourcing through CoastSnap can record short- and long-term shoreline change to help enhance understanding of why some beaches are more dynamic or resilient than others. Photos that are uploaded with the hashtags #CoastSnapTownNeck or #CoastSnapStateBeachMV will be posted on the CoastSnap Facebook page, reviewed by researchers from Woods Hole Sea Grant and the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, and then compiled into time-lapse videos that capture shoreline position and beach width.

Marine Debris

Clean Up and Collect Data with Clean Swell - Collect, categorize, and tally marine debris found on the shores and record data through Clean Swell, a mobile app developed by the Ocean Conservancy as part of their International Coastal Cleanup campaign. Whether you join a local CZM COASTSWEEP cleanup event (typically late summer through fall), or you want to contribute to a trash-free ocean any day of the year, use the app to document the type and amount of trash collected at your location and help provide a global snapshot of ocean trash. Your shared results will help researchers and policy makers develop solutions for a cleaner, healthier ocean.

Additional Resources

  • CZ-Tip - Internship/Job-Search Resources: Get into the Blue - This CZM tip provides the inside scoop on finding coastal internships, fellowships, and jobs.
  • SciStarter - This online database allows users to find, join, and contribute to science through more than 3,000 formal and informal research projects, events, and tools.
  • Zooniverse - Identify shore birds captured via nest cameras, classify whale vocalizations, transcribe museum specimen labels, and much more all from the comfort of your home with this online database of scientific research opportunities for volunteers.
  • MassBays Monitoring Coordinators’ Network - This community monitoring and citizen science resource page provides regular updates on grant opportunities, professional development and training, and direct assistance to community-based monitoring groups. Subscribe to their newsletter for the most up-to-date information.
  • Getting started with iNaturalist - This MassWildlife tip provides five easy steps to start an iNaturalist account, correctly identify and post photos of wildlife and plants, help confirm species identifications, and contribute to citizen science.
  • Citizen scientists are filling research gaps created by the pandemic - This recent article in The Conversation details the importance of citizen science efforts to help offset data losses from the shutdown of formal monitoring activities.

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