Citizen science comes to Whatcom County beaches with new iNaturalist app

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Kaylene Riehle and Heather Conkerton kneel over a tide pool examining a nudibranch. They’ve strategically planned their trip to Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve: It’s 10 a.m., which means there are still two hours before peak low tide, allowing the best opportunity to inspect the shoreline of marine plants and animals.

The pair is using iNaturalist, a free app that allows residents to share what they encounter along the beaches to help inform scientists on patterns in local ecology. The app is a collaboration between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society and has over a million participants worldwide, according to the iNaturalist website.

Riehle, a Whatcom Marine Resources Committee intern, is the project lead of the Whatcom County citizen-powered science project. Riehle graduated with an environmental studies degree from Western Washington University in 2019 and began the iNaturalist project after it was brought to her by an adviser.

“Not only is this something that gives us valuable information on what [species] we have, but it is also a really good opportunity for others to learn,” Riehle said.

Sea stars, sea anemones, crabs and gunnel fish are a few of the species that Riehle suggests people track with iNaturalist.

“The point of iNaturalist for us is to really know what is out there and how well they’re doing,” said Conkerton, who manages the project in Skagit County and works as an AmeriCorps aquatic reserves monitoring and stewardship coordinator for RE Sources, a Bellingham nonprofit that is a partner in the program locally. “We want to know ‘Are they abundant? Are they going out? Is something else coming in?’ What are the other conditions?’”

Other project partners are Washington Conservation Corps, the Department of Natural Resources and the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee.

Conkerton said data from the app, which has around 114 entries since it started in late May, can show how species interact with each other and their environment.

As of June 29, findings from the project’s 28 registered members include a plainfin midshipman in Semiahmoo Bay, a red rock crab in Birch Bay and an Ochre sea star in Point Roberts.

“People are probably going to be out on the beach anyway so we want them to put their eyes to some good use,” Conkerton said. “The thing about citizen science is, as a biologist, I can’t be everywhere at once so we rely on people to help us out.”

Riehle said she hopes people see the project as an opportunity to get outside during Covid-19 physical distancing.

The project coordinators ask that participants respect beach etiquette to ensure there is no damage to the marine ecosystems. This means volunteer scientists shouldn’t turn over rocks larger than their head and marine organisms should always be left where they were found.

Riehle said she prefers if participants scoop marine organisms with a cup to avoid touching them but if touching a marine organism is needed for documentation, she said it is important that participants gently touch the organism with wet hands.

“I don’t want people to be worried about making sure they have the perfect shot or the right information,” Riehle said. “Or if they take a picture and they’re not sure what the species is, I don’t want people to be discouraged from posting it and saying ‘I don’t know what this is.’”

The project, which will last until September 7, could continue in future years depending on how successful it is this summer, Riehle said.

“It’s something that you could do on your own and you could spend five or six hours out here or you could come with your family,” Riehle said. “It’s something that’s really malleable to what works for you.”

To participate in the Whatcom County project, people need to join the iNaturalist app, click “community” and then “projects.” From there, searching “Whatcom Marine Shoreline Summer Observation” in the search toolbar will bring up the project page.

For more information on the project, email Kaylene Riehle at kayleneriehle@gmail.com.

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