Citizen scientists use mobile apps to help “green” the ocean

As the recent annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) brought thousands of volunteers to the coasts, mobile phone applications were used to help volunteers with their widespread efforts to better understand the nature of marine debris.

Few people get to witness the breadth and wonder of underwater life, from coral to kelp to fish and sea anemones. SCUBA divers gain a unique view of not only the beauty but also the condition of underwater communities.

Unfortunately, they are increasingly seeing non-biodegradable trash—mostly plastic but also metal, glass, rubber, cloth, ceramic, and cardboard— on reefs and other marine habitats.

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), marine debris “injures and kills marine life, interferes with navigation safety, and poses a threat to human health.”

Some animals become entangled in ropes or fishing gear; others mistake debris for food, which can damage their tissues or cause them to starve.

Plastics degrade very slowly and can leach harmful chemicals into the ocean. Fish and shellfish consume the waste particles and chemicals and are then caught and sold in our fish markets, causing concern about harmful substances in our food.

A 2015 study calculated that 192 coastal countries worldwide generated 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste in 2010, 5–13 million MT of which found its way to the ocean. Marine debris litters beaches across the globe, even those with little local human activity, as currents move trash across oceans.

Divers bring their phones to the dive site. Once they remove trash and bring it to dry land, they sort, weigh, record and report the rubbish they have found onto their mobile device.

Joanne Marston, campaign manager, Project Aware

Government agencies, such as NOAA, and environmental organizations coordinate volunteers through programs and clean-up events to help remove some of the waste from beaches and coastal waterways.

The annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), which took place September 16th, brings hundreds of thousands of volunteers to help clean the coasts each year. In 2016, more than half a million volunteers removed over 18 million pounds (over 8 million kg) of trash from beaches, coasts and waterways in 112 countries.

Most trash is small—think cigarette butts, food wrappers and plastic straws— but volunteers have reported TV sets, toilets, bicycles, and refrigerators, as well as some specialty items like a tennis racket in South Africa, Christmas tree lights in Belize, and a blender in Jamaica.

These larger items are a big problem underwater as well, where they harm plants, corals and other structures yet remain invisible to most people. Underwater, “ghost” fishing nets and gear drift, tangle, and get caught on reefs, where they break or smother corals.

“Sea” your results through mobile technology

Mobile phone applications are now helping to encourage volunteers and use their widespread efforts to better understand the nature of marine debris. Two such apps are free to download for either Android or iOS systems.

  1. Dive Against Debris

In response to demand from concerned SCUBA divers, Project Aware designed a new app to make its Dive Against Debris (DAD) dive site surveys more fun and more useful. The new  Dive Against Debris app aims to help divers to record and communicate marine debris found underwater, as well as its impacts on marine life.

Launched in 2011 and coordinated by Project Aware, Dive Against Debris (DAD) surveys aim not only to reduce the amount of debris found at dive sites. They also help build a global dataset of the types and quantities of debris found in the ocean, in order to show trends and advocate for change.

In 2015, more than 4,000 scuba divers participated in 454 DAD surveys at dive sites across the globe. They removed and reported over 32,000 kg (70,000 lbs) over 90,000 pieces of debris, over half of them  plastic, and over 1,000 marine creatures either entangled in debris or dead.

In 2016, divers removed more than 157,000 pieces of trash during 1,122 DAD surveys, as well as logging 1,624 entangled marine animals.

Some dive shops require divemaster trainees to complete a Project Aware reef survey during their training to ensure they grasp and care about the condition of their local dive sites.

Joanne Marston, Project Aware’s Campaign Manager, said in an email to Mongabay-Wildtech, “The app includes a list of common debris items and uses geo-location for quick and easy reporting. The data reported becomes part of a global dataset used by conservationists and scientists to help drive long-term change.”

“Divers bring their phones to the dive site,” explained Marston. “Once they remove trash and bring it to dry land, they sort, weigh, record and report the rubbish they have found onto their mobile device.”

A review of the new app by the Deeper Blue dive news platform wrote, “The new app is intuitive and easy to use, and includes a list of common types of marine debris, as well as the ability to use the smartphones’ inbuilt geolocation function to better report the whereabouts of the debris.”

The app makes it easier for divers to record the location, estimate the area surveyed, types and quantities of trash items found underwater, and any entangled or dead wildlife.

It also makes clean-ups more like a game or competition by encouraging users to view their contributions to the global debris dataset, upload images of their hauls, and share their impact via social media.

“For surveys conducted in the same location and survey area, divers have the ability to duplicate core survey details from a previous approved survey,” said Marston.

“This helps to quicken the process of data submission for our repeated surveys.  Divers also like seeing all their surveys in one place – they are able to see exactly how much impact they are making to clean our ocean.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay. Read the full story. 

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