Integrating #citizenscience with #marine and #freshwater #conservationaction and #education

Capturing what the Mountains to the Sea Conservation Trust annual wananga are fundamentally all about

Participating in the annual 3-day Mountains to Sea Conservation Trust wananga at Omaha Marae was pure joy. The location was perfect: Goat Island, New Zealand’s first and much-visited marine reserve (est. 1975; 518ha) lay only a few short kilometers away. The lively forum was attended by around 50 educators and project coordinators, scientists as well as agency staff working on diverse marine, freshwater and the occasional terrestrial projects. The purpose? Share and grow ideas around education for sustainability initiatives and science communication; develop professionally; expand networks; explore the landscape and generally enjoy each other’s company.

Day #1 – Welcome and keynotes

The wananga (educational seminar; forum; conference) began with a pōwhiri (welcome) to greet and settle all manuhiri (guests) on to the marae. With a feast for lunch and a round of individual introductions, the rest of the day was given over to presentations on the Experiencing Marine Reserves and Whitebait Connection Programmes. Next, Amy-Rose Hardy provided an enlightened approach to supporting and upskilling community groups through science mentors (aka ‘barefoot scientists’, based on community nursing models in rural china). Dr. Victoria Metcalf outlined the Participatory Science Platform, a key source of funding for a number of projects profiled by wananga participants (e.g., Project Hotspot) and Sally Carson discussed the challenges of running the national Marine Meter Squared monitoring programme. Dr. Nick Shears (Based at the nearby Leigh Marine Lab), wrapped up with current research and tech innovation in marine reserves, highlighting were citizen science initiatives could develop.

The diminutive Goat Is. and surrounding marine reserve en route to Omaha Marae

Day #2 – Lightening talks, field trips and… some dancing!

The second morning began with an invigorating swim to Goat Is (for two of us at least!) and then straight into project roundups from Dept of Conservation and Council staff, project coordinators and ecologists – details of these inspiring projects are in the wananga proceedings. Afternoon field trips included snorkelling (Whangateau and Goat Is), exploring Goat Is Marine Reserve by glass bottom boat, determining what makes good inanga (whitebait) spawning habitat and seeing how inanga can be grown for sustainable harvesting. The evening? Two presentations by PhD students and then grooving to ukulele band the Nukes at the Marine Lab.

Searching for whitebait eggs in strategically-placed strawbales as a part of the whitebait habitat assessment exercise

Partying at the Leigh Marine Lab with Auckland ukulele bank, the Nukes

Day #3 – Citizen science workshop

No time for a swim, it was workshop prep instead – the purpose of my participation in the wananga. With so many projects that have strong science component already underway, it was a perfect opportunity to delve deeper into problem solving, and identifying pathways forward for citizen science. A starting point was seeking a definition of citizen science including mātauranga māori, as both centre on the co-production of knowledge on the environment. The word cloud uses key terms, with the size of the word reflecting the number of mentions.

What is citizen science? What are the connections with matauranga maori?

NZ marine and freshwater citizen science initiatives

Participants added their knowledge of initiatives underway – listed below are those not currently included in the 2016 Inventory of Citizen Science Projects and Programmes.


As with many of the citizen science workshops I have facilitated over the last 18 months, there is a strong focus on social aspects. Although this reflects the roles of many workshop participants (i.e. coordinating public/school programmes, educating groups), it also underscores the ‘citizen’ component of citizen science (CS), and the need to balance scientific (e.g., data production) and social interests (e.g., participant motivation and learning).    

Persistent negative perceptions

  • Perception of low data quality, lack of credibility of volunteers providing data
  • Lack of value to science
  • Perception that data aren’t making a difference, taken up by policy/decision-makers, not influencing outcomes

Data management, storage and use

  • Centralisation of data collection
  • Ease of data entry, data management, locating sources of data, knowing how community data used by agencies, clear presentation of outcomes
  • Data consistency between projects (national vs local)
  • Difficult working environment once you go from tidal to intertidal
  • Integrating mātauranga māori

The lack of tools and resources

  • Time/access, funding (including data collection)
  • Sourcing enough (reliable) volunteers to collect data
  • Multiple overlapping platforms
  • Lack of knowledge, using local knowledge

Project delivery

  • Defining project purpose
  • Others/scientists not willing to collaborate, distrust
  • Constant (agency) restructures
  • Bureaucracy and Health & Safety legislation
  • Inaccessible environments (incl. landowners, forests, biosecurity)
  • Lack of quick feedback

Community group sustainability

  • Access to technology and skills/training
  • Competition between groups working in same sector
  • Communication from group to group and with project partners
  • Succession planning and lack of leadership

Personal/social challenges

  • Loss of motivation
  • Lack of self-belief/confidence
  • Pervasive community issues (e.g., poverty, health)
  • Public denial of environmental problems
  • Cultural barriers and language; value judgements

The main whare at Omaha Marae: our communal sleeping and workshop area

Moving from barriers to solutions: practical actions and pragmatic principles

A challenge set out at the start of the wananga by Kim Jones, National Whitebait Connection Coordinator to ‘Know your Why’ resonated with participants and served as a touchstone for self-reflection. It also underscored how often the ‘Why’ the overall purpose and philosophy guiding action is lost. In responding to the barriers outlined above, many participants went back to the ‘Why’ and used this to shape their responses.

Communicating the ‘Why’

Starting point: the disconnect between scientists and citizens and between citizens themselves. Attitudes include ‘It’s not our problem, we don’t need to take action’, the scale of problems and distrust of data/information sources.

Opportunities: a greater connection and purpose for everyone by ‘knowing your story’, delivering a clear message, purpose and aims to avoid confusion. In short, explaining why we need everyone’s help and letting everyone know that we’re not doing enough now for the environment. Helen Kettles (DOC) described Predator Free NZ 2050 as ‘a call to arms’: Clear message, definition of project and branding – people can easily understand the ‘why’.

Successful projects create a story that everyone wants to be a part of, and that also targets issues that the public connect with. Every story has a beginning, middle and an end. The ‘idea’ is the beginning of the story, and the middle is getting the people to do the activities, and the end may be a hub, communicating the project through a website or an app, both for volunteers and new participants who want to be part of the story and to help. Successful projects are great news stories; celebrate and share with end users.

The inspired leader

Inspired leaders are needed to follow the story through, collate the data and communicate findings effectively so that participants can understand why they were doing the activities, and what was achieved. They also help motivate participants by providing positive feedback, particularly when there are set backs. Monitoring results may show negative trends so it’s important to have shorter-term goals to maintain motivation e.g., how many volunteers involved; how many trees planted; incidences of flood. Activities have to be meaningful to volunteers and funders. While realistic goals short-term goals are needed, so are long-term blue-sky goals: have a 100-year plan rather than just for the next project. This enables the volunteers and their children to have a pathway into the project.

Empowering participants

To overcome a sense of isolation and loss of project purpose, a suggestion was to develop mana-enhancing projects incorporating matauranga maori cultural indicators. At the same time, building cultural awareness and bringing the local community together but walking alongside them to ensure they retain ownership of the project. Tailoring communication to suit individual community needs: in the Far North, face to face meetings are more effective than social media.

Meaningful data

Maintaining community groups’ sovereignty while having access to nationwide databases, frameworks and protocols (e.g., a ’menu’ of CS methods) to provide groups with guidance, longevity and stability. Methods that can be standardised and customised to suit different communities. To reach this goal, we need communication between government, iwi, community groups, and scientists in councils/trusts/Crown Research Institutes that community groups can go to for support and interpretation. Peer review processes as well as science mentoring would support this goal.

By ensuring that projects tick policy boxes and that data are usable so that there is evidence to support action. Other opportunities include incorporating CS into state of the environment reporting. Actively marketing CS data results not only to supports funding applications, but can also highlighting the mutual benefits to end users. At the same time, end users need to be identified early and brought on board. Examples include Project Hotspot, where thanks to project data, Port Taranaki now promote orca in the port as well as DOC rules around vessel proximity to orca; an Experiencing Marine Reserves action project on port dredging, led to Port Taranaki changing their monitoring, and including CS in their assessment of environmental effects.

Refocusing funding

Securing funding through high level policy change, partnerships with community, corporate and philanthropic sector, and embracing social enterprise. Reframing funding focus from ‘what can you do for us’, to ‘what can we can do for you’. A pathway into social enterprise may be accreditation or certification, introduction from primary and intermediate school level and leading into secondary level. Developing training resources and creating links with industry. An example is Papa Taiao Earthcare which provides practical conservation training for young adults in Northland. This model of growing recognisable skills – and being paid to use these skills, already occurs with some community groups training their own members in lieu of hiring contractors.

Supporting citizen science

A suggestion was that govt/agencies prioritise projects that have a CS component (as occurs in the US) and include a reward system for applicants. A website connecting CS initiatives with potential funders would capitalise on business that want brand affiliation to ‘green’ causes. Lending libraries (another US example) to enable groups to borrow tech/monitoring equipment, provide free training videos etc. A ‘funding roadmap’ would guide newer groups where to source funding from, and a resource for managing with volunteers including what works and what doesn’t work would help design activities.

Overall priority actions

The workshop wrapped up with groups briefly prioritising actions and highlighting key principles:

  • A national citizen science hub developed from local workshops designed to bring key players together. The hub needs strong leadership, dedicated funds to support it, and a simple user interface
  • Collaborate to establishing marine reserves and marine monitoring programmes
  • Develop national schools environmental monitoring programme
  • Evaluate projects (ongoing)
  • Encourage and enable social enterprise
  • Community empowerment: build leaders and connections, provide mentoring and skills development
  • Keep telling the story of the ‘why’ (nation; community specific)
  • Share visions and promote inspirational stories using visual media
  • Get full investment of the end users to ensure project sustainability

Paul Decker explaining how Manaki Whitebait sustainably grow and harvest their product – the only whitebait initiative of its kind in NZ

One response to “Integrating #citizenscience with #marine and #freshwater #conservationaction and #education

  1. Pingback: #Citizenscience tour #3: Nelson for #freshwater #biodiversity, #biosecurity, #BioBlitz! | monicalogues·

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