Editor’s note: Rebecca Koss, with The People and Parks Foundation, is project officer for Sea Search, the program described in the following essay. Anthony Boxshall is manager of marine national parks research for Parks Victoria. Peter R. Brown is chief executive officer of The People and Parks Foundation.

By Rebecca Koss, Anthony Boxshall, and Peter Brown

Sea Search is a community-based monitoring program for the system of 24 marine national parks and marine sanctuaries in the state of Victoria, Australia. The program teaches volunteers and school groups how to identify and monitor marine flora and fauna in their local MPAs. Through this “citizen science” approach, Sea Search generates useful data for protected area management while fostering greater environmental awareness and stewardship in the surrounding population.

Launched in 2004, the program is directed by The People and Parks Foundation (an Australian NGO) and sponsored by Parks Victoria and ExxonMobil. Its monitoring protocols – which focus on intertidal rock platforms, subtidal reefs, and seagrass beds – were designed by Deakin University in conjunction with community groups, ensuring a user-friendly set of methods that require no prior scientific knowledge. The Sea Search procedures are published as part of the Parks Victoria Technical Series, and are available on the program website at http://www.seasearch.org.au.

Community and school groups work with Parks Victoria rangers and a Sea Search project officer to collect seasonal data in their local MPA and at nearby control sites. The data contribute to management planning, and will be added soon to a centralized database with links to management agency data. Through this database, community volunteers will be able to track changes in their local park over time. This “ownership” of the data by community groups helps increase their sense of responsibility for the site (i.e., the need to collect high-quality data) and their skills (in scientific techniques and identification), while fostering passion for the marine environment, self-esteem, and social connections within their local community.

Furthermore, the program’s partnership among Parks Victoria, ExxonMobil, Deakin University, and The People and Parks Foundation emphasizes to community members that Sea Search – and, by extension, their participation in it – is considered important and valued in state government as well as by corporate sponsors. The state’s 24 MPAs were designated in November 2002 and cover 5.3% of state coastal waters (MPA News 4:7).

Challenges and Lessons Learned

The creation of any environmental monitoring program entails challenges. Community-based monitoring programs such as Sea Search automatically include an additional dimension of social agendas. To ensure the program meets the goals of park management and community groups, we have found it important to address the following issues:

  1. The program must be real for the management agency and other partners, with clear objectives and responsibilities: volunteers will see through token programs immediately. The agency must explain what questions it wants answered, and how data collected by community groups will be integrated into management goals and projects.
  2. The commitment from institutional partners must more than match the volunteer’s commitment in terms of money, time, or other considerations. Volunteers should not be treated as a “free workforce” to meet agency ends and requirements, and their contributions should be valued and acknowledged by project and agency staff.
  3. Monitoring methods must be scientifically robust to be useful, and should complement other data. It may be a waste of time collecting data that are incompatible with existing datasets. The methods must have acceptability among scientific peers.
  4. Monitoring methods must be relatively easy for volunteers to apply. Feedback from volunteer trials is invaluable for creating user-friendly techniques.
  5. Community groups will generally require agency support (logistical and financial) to assist with collection and maintenance of the data. The agency should also supply monitoring equipment to community groups – who generally cannot afford the out-of-pocket expenses required to complete monitoring surveys – and continually maintain that equipment. Volunteers become frustrated when equipment does not work.
  6. Training in identification of marine flora and fauna is a must for community groups. Without it, volunteers will be unable to collect data correctly. In addition, ongoing data-quality assurance is vital for the program to be successful.
  7. Engagement of corporate sponsors encourages social responsibility on the part of these corporations, and can facilitate opportunities for their employees to become active volunteers for the monitoring program.
  8. This type of community monitoring program requires a project officer to work with agency staff and serve as a point of contact for volunteers. This person liaises between organizations; organizes the monitoring surveys with community groups and agencies; provides on-the-ground administrative presence during the surveys; offers support to volunteers through training and identification; and manages daily administration of the program.

For more information:

Rebecca Koss, The People and Parks Foundation, c/o Level 10, 535 Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia. E-mail: rkoss@peopleandparks.org; Web: www.seasearch.org.au

Anthony Boxshall, Parks Victoria, 10/535 Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia. Tel: +61 3 8627 4859; E-mail: aboxshall@parks.vic.gov.au

Peter R. Brown, The People and Parks Foundation, c/o Level 10, 535 Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia. Tel: +61 3 8627 4732; E-mail: pbrown@peopleandparks.org