Citizen science

Citizen science is the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public.

As scientists, we often undervalue the power of the public to contribute to scientific research. Members of the public are both knowledgeable and interested in advancing our understanding of natural environments. More than this, we have a moral duty to involve the public in research and conservation efforts – nature belongs to everyone.

As a result, citizen science is now a recognised and growing field. This is particularly important for whale research. Monitoring cetaceans is expensive, usually seasonal and often coastal. Citizen science allows expansion of this research with limited funding, whilst encouraging members of the public to become involved in the research and conservation process. If all results are shared in an open and fair way with contributors and the wider public, citizen science can be a powerful tool in ocean conservation.

In Iceland, we aim to use citizen science to monitor occurrence, distribution and shifts of cetaceans in Icelandic and surrounding waters. We strive to involve all groups – such as residents, whale-watching guides and tourists – but are particularly keen to work with fishers. Fishers are key players due to their vast ocean knowledge and time spent in offshore waters, areas that others (including whale researchers) generally do not reach. Our goal is to set up a citizen science programme in Iceland that collects sightings from fishers and other groups, whilst openly sharing these sightings with everyone.

As a first step, we created a public Facebook group to share Iceland whale sightings. Facebook is an emerging platform for citizen science, with hundreds of whale sightings groups around the world. As of May 2022, this group has more than 1,300 members and hundreds of whale sightings from around the country. Highlights include ‘sand-netting’ humpback whales in the north and sperm whales following fishing boats to eat discarded fish!

Plot: distribution of Facebook group sightings in each week of 2020, starting from February.

Encouraged by its initial success, we wanted to assess the feasibility of a more formal citizen programme – are people willing to contribute, where do they see whales and can they identify whale species? This was the focus of Alyssa’s master’s thesis in 2020 (University of Edinburgh, MSc Marine Systems and Policy), using online surveys and informal interviews. Some key results:

  • 111 people contributed, including 81 fishers
  • People observed whales in coastal and offshore waters all around Iceland
  • People have seen a variety of species
  • People noted changes and cetacean prey preferences that were very similar to published scientific results, strengthening their validity
  • Almost all individuals enjoyed observing whales, including most fishers

Table: number of participants who saw each species with varying regularity.