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WDC volunteer sightings – conservation in action!

Volunteers have been collecting land-based sightings for WDC for more than 10 years and we are proud to announce that working with Dr. Clare Embling from Plymouth University, we have shown how valuable our data are with our first peer-reviewed publication: ‘How much effort is enough?  The power of citizen science to monitor trends in coastal cetacean species’ .

Shorewatch weekend

Our Shorewatch data collected by a network of trained, land-based  volunteers in the Moray Firth in Scotland showed that our data can detect trends between years in bottlenose dolphin presence at a single location in the Moray Firth (at our WDC Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay) and between sites within the Moray Firth. At sites with more regular dolphin sightings, lower numbers of watches were required to detect that overall bottlenose dolphin presence was going up or remaining steady.  Where sightings were less regular, more watches were required to show trends. We initially investigated only bottlenose dolphins and sites within the Moray Firth because this is our largest dataset. 

It is exciting to show that our data can be used to detect trends because, over the long term, this is how we will determine changes – whether due to climate, human activities or other factors. But this is only a first step; we must now continue to collect and analyse our data until we can show similar results using data from wider sites and varied species!

We were also able to show that there is value in data at whatever level it is collected but that different amounts of effort would be required to answer our different research questions.  For example, low effort will allow for monitoring trends in spatial range over very large physical and temporal scales.  With this level of effort we can begin to address our research questions above by looking at which species are found at which sites and monitoring changes in species range over the long term with decades of data (for example, 40 years of shore-based surveys off California showed an increase in the diversity of cetacean species sighting in line with warming sea temps and an implied regime shift). Higher levels of effort, say 5 watches per day minimum are recommended for relatively immediate inter-annual or inter-site trends in bottlenose dolphin occurrence in the Moray Firth.  This level of monitoring would be required to answer our research question about rapid changes due to anthropogenic disturbance, such as displacement (dolphins moving out of the area) during the pile driving phase of wind farm construction but is not our target at every site. 

Any effort also keeps ‘eyes on the sea’ and allows contribution to records of at-sea disturbance, strandings along the shore or highlighting any incidence seen as it happens. 

Finally, however, the usefulness of any data for outreach purposes should not be overlooked as a means to enhance engagement with the local marine environment.  Conservation initiatives are often driven by the interest and will of local parties to speak up for their local wildlife. As an example of conservation in action, WDC volunteer collected Shorewatch data were used by SSE to determine the best plan and timeline for the placement of the Caithness to Moray subsea transmission cable.

As a trained Shorewatcher following a specific protocol, you are producing data of similar reliability as using experts doing the same watches.  And, as a group, we have managed to do well over 30,000 watches from sites all around the Scottish coastline since 2010 (from Spey Bay since 2005)!  

So we would like to thank our Shorewatch volunteers – please keep up the great conservation work 🙂