Citizen Science

COASST: Beach Walks with a Purpose

August 26, 2014

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A gull takes off along the Oregon Coast. Photo by Flickr user Ricardo Wang through a Creative Commons license.

What is COASST?

Do you live near or visit the West Coast? Do you enjoy walking along the beach and spotting the diverse sea birds that live there?

Would you like to learn more about the marine wildlife in your area?

Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a partnership led by the University of Washington, is your chance to learn about the marine environment while contributing baseline data for conservation science.

Why is it important?

Scientists and managers need good information about how the current condition of an ecosystem compares to its past condition so that they can make recommendations and decisions for conservation. COASST gets communities directly involved in the protection of their marine ecosystems.

“It’s amazing to be a part of program where citizens and scientists are truly working together. The data that COASST volunteers collect is highly accurate and verifiable, making this data incredibly useful for scientists and resource managers,” says Erika Frost, Volunteer Coordinator of COASST.

Though COASST monitors many aspects of coastal ecosystem including a new effort to track marine debris, one of their primary focuses is beached birds.

“COASST currently engages more than 800 volunteers in citizen science, collecting data on beached bird carcasses found on beaches from Northern California to Alaska,” Frost explains.

By monitoring beaches regularly, year-round and reporting their observations, volunteers provide baseline data for West Coast beaches and allow scientists to see patterns in bird mortality and more.

“COASST provides data and collaborates with many agencies, organizations, and individuals working to protect the marine environment.  From the data collected, we’ve established a baseline for seabird mortality on North Pacific beaches. COASST data has also been used for studies on topics such as climate change, bycatch events, oil spills, and harmful algal blooms,” Frost reports.

They also have a special project reporting on sea star mortality to Cornell University.

How do you get involved?

You can volunteer to monitor beached birds and/or marine debris.

“COASST provides hands-on training sessions along the coast from Northern California to Alaska each year,” says Frost. Training for beached bird surveys takes five hours and training for marine debris takes four hours. COASST will provide you with supplies and field guides for a small deposit.

After training, find a beach in your area and record your observations.

“COASST volunteers survey their assigned beach once a month. If you can’t make it to the coast once a month, but still want to help, some volunteers alternate months or serve as substitutes on beaches as needed, when they do visit the coast,” Frost adds.

“You can identify a beached bird, even when you just have the foot, the wing, or the head of a beached bird in front of you! The Beached Birds field guide walks you through all the steps, so you don’t have to be a bird expert.  You can be incredibly accurate, just by taking a few measurements and following a simple key,” Frost explains.

Since the project requires examining bird carcasses, it may be more suited to teens and adults.

If you love the sound of COAAST, but live closer to the East Coast, you might try SEANET, a similar coastal monitoring program that I will cover in more detail next week.

Can’t make it to the beach? The COASST news section and blog are great resources for learning about beached bird patterns and recent findings.

Frost encourages those who do live along the Pacific to try it out.

“If you’re interested in becoming involved, please let us know, and we can notify you of the next training session in your area,” she says.

Then, share your COASST story in the comments and let us know what you think!

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] with information about the project or leave a comment below with a link.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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