Creating a League of Citizen Scientists for the Ocean

A playbook for turning administrative headwinds into lasting marine conservation and protection.

Rose Island. NOAA photo by Hatsue Bailey

First the bad news. The public comment period for Executive Order 13795, which puts all the designated Marine Monuments (since April 2007) under review, is now closed. Over 400,000,000 square acres of newly designated marine protected areas in US coastal waters are now up for grabs.

Now the good news. Nearly 100,000 comments are loudly echoing the same message: don’t remove these designations. Marine protected areas (MPAs) work to restore ecosystems and, if anything, need to be expanded. Americans clearly care about preserving these places for future generations. Regardless of what the Trump administration does with our MPAs, the people have spoken. We can still work to protect these and other marine habitats. In fact, history tells us that now is our moment to shine.

We need a League of Citizen Scientists for the Ocean. I’ve seen glimpses of this future, and I know it’s possible. But before I get into the plan, it’s important to go over the history of our national parks and protected areas.

A Brief History of the National Parks

When most people think of the origin of the national parks, they rightfully think of John Muir, the bearded naturalist who inspired so many people to care about the land and to believe in the idea that these landscapes should be spared from development and protected for future generations. They also think of Teddy Roosevelt, who created dozens of national parks, millions of square miles of public land, and established the US Forest Service. There’s a great story of Muir taking Roosevelt completely off the grid for four days of hiking and camping in Yosemite. It’s our fairy tale memory of the National Park origins. The camping story is true, but it’s not complete. There were many other important moments and players before and after. Especially after.

In the years following Roosevelt’s presidency, the future of these protected places was very much in doubt. There were commercial interests and little funding to support the upkeep. It was another character, Stephen Mather, who ended up adding the next important piece to the puzzle. Mather was a business man from Chicago who had met John Muir and became inspired by his vision. He left his company to lead a multi-year campaign to create the National Park Service — a federal agency that remained dedicated to keeping Muir’s vision alive. One hundred years later, we’re celebrating the centennial of that achievement.

John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Stephen Mather

But that’s just the story of the protected land. Ocean protection is a century behind. In 1972, the first marine sanctuary was created, exactly one hundred years after Yellowstone. The oceans have had their own John Muir, too. Sylvia Earle, the scientist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, has inspired so many of us with her love of the ocean and has us pointed in the same direction: deeply understanding that we need to protect these places for future generations and the rest of life on this planet. After winning the TED prize in 2009, Earle has been on a tireless crusade to promote the importance of MPAs through her organization Mission Blue. Also like Muir, she’s had success convincing politicians. Barack Obama and George W. Bush were both fantastic ocean presidents (proof that it’s not a partisan issue), and we’ve gone from just 150 square miles of marine protected area to over three million in the span of their terms. But as with the national parks in 1915, the future of these designations is uncertain.

Sylvia Earle, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama

Our challenges are different than those faced one hundred years ago, but they are not entirely dissimilar. In fact, we can take Mather’s playbook and apply it now.

Okay, so what was Stephen Mather’s plan? How did he captivate and catalyze an ambivalent American public to support the cause? I’ve broken his efforts into a three point plan.

1. Focus on Engagement

Build an architecture for participation. Stephen Mather took a group of people from different backgrounds into the woods. He took them hiking for ten days in Kings Canyon in California. He showed them first hand what these places meant. At lunch on the final day of the trip, he looked around the table and said:

“So I ask you writers to go back and spread the message to your readers. You businessmen to contact your clubs, organizations, and friends interested in the outdoors. Tell them to help financially and use their influence on members of Congress… You employees of the state, urge cooperation between State and Federal Governments. To each of you, to all of you, remember that God has given us these beautiful lands. Try to save them for, and share them with, future generations.”

Beyond influencing politicians, he gave everyone a job and a purpose in the campaign. Everyone had a role to play.

2. Build the Infrastructure

Around that time, 1914, the automobile was just blooming in American culture. Across the country, people were getting cars. Stephen Mather used that momentum. He knew that if people didn’t go to these places, they wouldn’t care about them. So he partnered with highway associations and built beautiful highways going out to these parks. It was an innovative idea, and it worked. They basically invented car camping. They wove it into the American psyche. It wasn’t anything people had imagined before. They brought it to life.

Photos: Zion National Park and Ash Mountain Entrance Station, NPS

3. Visionary Philanthropy

Mather himself had been a successful business man in Chicago, and he had a number of wealthy friends who used their resources for the cause. Anytime a highway association needed funding, they were there—they stepped in and paid for it. Anytime there was a tract of land that was up for review; they would buy it. One example: William Kent recognized that there was a patch of redwoods — the only one left in Marin County in California — so he bought and donated it. This area became Muir Woods, one of our most famous and celebrated places in the country — a national treasure that was nearly lost.

Photo: Mather and Kent, Muir Woods National Monument, NPS

That’s it. It’s a straight forward strategy. And now it’s our turn to do the same.

Focus on Engagement 
One of the last bills to pass Obama’s desk was the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, and in there, tucked deeply away, is language that “expands opportunities for crowdsourcing research input and citizen science participation by organizations and individuals to benefit Federal science agency missions.”

So, citizen science is finally legal. That’s a good thing because a lot of people are already doing it, especially in the Ocean. In California, there’s MPA Watch. Citizens are going out to the coast and monitoring the activity in the MPAs. There have already been over 17,000 transects. Underwater it’s the same. Divers are going down with their clipboards and counting. They’re participating in Reef Check, and contributing hard-to-collect data to biodiversity monitoring. This year’s Snapshot Cal Coast, a multi-week bioblitz organized by the California Academy of Sciences, collected over 13,000 iNaturalist observations from more than 600 participants.

Photo: Heal the Bay

Build the Infrastructure
We’re going to need more than roads this time. The LA Times headline said it best, after the big announcement of the new Papahānaumokuākea marine protected area last year: “Hawaii: Lots to see at newly expanded Papahanaumokuakea national monument, but good luck trying to get there.”

Like Mather, we need to ride the wave of technology. Recent developments in digital tools are providing just the opportunity. There are new, immersive ways to bring the ocean into our homes and classrooms. NOAA has just released amazing new virtual dives of our national marine sanctuaries. Now, even if you can’t visit them in real life, you can go on and experience these places in VR.

Our team at OpenROV has been building underwater drones, and our newest model, the Trident, will start shipping to Kickstarter backers this month.

Underwater drones are more than just swimming cameras. They’re internet-connected devices, bringing the ocean online. With only six million registered scuba divers around the world, we need to continue to seek new forms of innovative ocean engagement. The naturalist E.O. Wilson offered a vision in his book Half Earth:

“In viewing the future this way, I wish to suggest a means to achieve almost free enjoyment of the world’s best places in the biosphere that I and my fellow naturalists have identified. The cost-benefit ratio would be extremely small. It requires only a thousand or so high-resolution cameras (small and unobtrusive, thanks to the continuing information technology revolution) that broadcast live around the clock from sites within reserves. People would still visit any reserve in the world physically, but they could also travel there virtually and in continuing real time with no more than a few keystrokes in their homes, schools, and lecture halls. Perhaps a Serengeti water hole at dawn? Or the diel cycles of a teeming Amazon canopy? There would also be available streaming video of summer daytime on the coast in the shallow offshore waters of Antarctica, and cameras that continuously travel through the great coral triangles of Indonesia and New Guinea. With species identifications and brief expert commentaries unobtrusively added, the adventure would be forever changing, and safe.”

This future is closer than people realize. We’ve also begun experimenting with artificial intelligence and using deep learning to get real time species identification. The iNaturalist app is further along. They now offer real-time ID suggestions of any creature you photograph with your smartphone. Just as Wilson envisioned, this is like an A.I. park ranger who can help you identify different species in real time. These are still early experiments, but the technology is moving fast and getting better every day.

Visionary Philanthropy 
Philanthropists have played an outsized role in Ocean conservation, but only recently have they started to push the boundaries of convention. The Schmidt Marine team is now funding companies to go out and build new technologies. This is exactly the right idea. We need entrepreneurs and technologists to realize that they can build more than product delivery apps, they can build tools and products that help us understand, connect with, and protect our natural world.

It’s not just tradition philanthropists, either. We raised more than $800,000 on Kickstarter. There are people out there of all financial means who believe in this idea, want to get behind it, and want to take part. More recently, we announced the SEE Initiative, which will match the Kickstarter funding and send Tridents to classrooms, citizen scientists, and early-career researchers around the world. We want these tools to get to the people on the front lines of engagement and conservation.

This is why I’m hopeful. I’m focusing on the 97,957 people who took the time to provide public comments. Let’s turn those comments into action.We all need to be like Stephen Mather. The citizen science story is our torch to carry for future generations, so our grandkid’s grandkids wake up in a world with a healthy, beautiful, and wild Ocean.