June 17, 2020
By Brandon McWilliams, WSG Science Communications Fellow
On a normal spring day along the Puget Sound, chances are good that one of the people enjoying the coast is also doing scientific research. Many projects at Washington Sea Grant (WSG) rely on dedicated teams of volunteers to keep tabs on conditions along our coast. These volunteers do everything from monitor invasive European green crab populations with WSG Crab Team, to checking toxic algae levels with SoundToxins. But this is not a normal spring. How, then, have our community science projects fared in this time of stay-at-home orders, closed spaces, and social distancing?
Crab Team had a rough start to their year. March is normally when Crab Team runs hands-on trainings for new and returning volunteers. This year, though, in-person trainings were not an option, and online versions were also out of the question. “We have learned through experience that online training can’t convey all the nuance and interpretation that people need to sample independently and confidently. Field ecology is not a cookbook science,” said Emily Grason, marine ecologist and WSG Crab Team program manager.
That meant that there would be no new volunteers this year. Luckily, there is still a solid core of experienced monitors ready and willing to work. So, Crab Team did what field scientists have have to do: they adapted. Grason and Amy Linhart, Crab Team program coordinator, set up drive-throughs to safely get bait and monitoring supplies to their experienced volunteers — until the Governor’s Stay Home Stay Healthy order was implemented, halting all activity.
As the COVID situation continued to develop, it became clear that restrictions would likely be in place for a while. Unfortunately, as Grason said, “monitoring can’t wait because green crabs don’t wait. They are still out there growing their population.” If green crab populations are allowed to grow unchecked, not only will they cause serious ecological damage, but managing them becomes exponentially harder.
WSG worked closely with the UW College of the Environment to develop procedures to allow Crab Team volunteer work to resume during the Stay Home Stay Health order. Of course, volunteers are required to adhere to social distancing guidelines specifically adapted to the monitoring protocols, and only go out to monitor if they are comfortable doing so. “Some of the sites just can’t be monitored, and that’s OK,” Grason clarified. “We do work with a population that tends to be in the high risk demographic. Some people are electing not to go out and that’s absolutely a decision they need to make to protect their families and communities.”
Despite the hurdles, Crab Team has largely been able to continue their vital work. “We won’t be at full capacity probably at any point this year,” Grason said, but thanks to the thriving community of volunteers and collaboration among state, federal, and tribal partners, effective monitoring continues even during this crisis.
The SoundToxins team faces similar issues, though they had completed their training in January, before any restrictions were in place. “The biggest change is that some of the groups that normally had 15 or 20 people now have one or two that are authorized to conduct the work,” said Teri King, marine water quality specialist and program manager for SoundToxins. “We were really lucky.” Many of the SoundToxins volunteers anticipated the shutdown orders and brought their monitoring gear home so that they could continue working should restrictions impact their ability to travel. Other SoundToxins monitors working for shellfish companies and tribes were named as essential staff for their organizations with monitoring a critical element of their work. Quickly after the statewide stay-at-home order took effect, SoundToxins monitoring was also designated essential due to their work with the Department of Health in predicting potential shellfish toxicity. But more challenges may still be ahead. “We have a feeling that things will be more taxed in the system this year,” King said.
COVID-related restrictions may have disrupted many things in our lives, but the non-human world has no such limitations. Even through a pandemic, the coastal monitoring that keeps our communities and ecosystems safe and healthy remains just as important as ever. In a time when many research programs have become more difficult to keep going, community science endeavors like Crab Team and SoundToxins have proven more adaptable and resilient, as they deploy a network of people who can conduct the work practically in their own backyards. Thank you to all those who work on these projects, and especially to those brave folks who continue to carry on working to keep our communities and ecosystems safe even in this uncertain time.
Also, you can learn more about SoundToxins here.