Community Science Fills in the Gaps

Apr 12, 2023

It’s spring, and Becky Swerida has organized a local treasure hunt. Not for gold or jewels, but for bubbles. Specifically, the bubbles that pop up on the seagrasses that grow in the shallow waters of Otter Point Creek and Jug Bay. It’s a nerdy, but not surprising, focus for a submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) enthusiast like Swerida. What is surprising is how many community members have turned out to join the fun.

“These events get people so excited about SAV,” says Swerida, the reserve biologist at the Chesapeake Bay Reserve in Maryland. “So much of the training is about why we care and how the data are being used. Volunteers feel so connected and empowered.”

Swerida has channeled that energy to bring the Chesapeake SAV Watchers volunteer monitoring program to the Reserve, with support from partners, including the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center, Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary and the Chesapeake Bay Program. Groups of 15 to 20 volunteers came together for four SAV Watch-a-thon events at Maryland Reserve over the spring and summer of 2022, providing approximately 340 volunteer hours.

SAV provides many benefits to estuarine ecosystems. For example, it supports fisheries, promotes biodiversity, and stores carbon, contributing to the mitigation of climate change. To help manage this important resource in Chesapeake Bay, there has been intensive, long-term scientific monitoring in a few places, and thanks to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), broad-scale aerial imagery collected across the extent of the bay. The former provides a detailed view of SAV conditions in a very small area and the latter provides a good sense of whether SAV is present across a wide area, but it’s not possible to see which species are growing or how healthy and productive they are.

“This gap is where community science comes in,” says Swerida. By engaging volunteers, we can link the two existing types of monitoring data and get at the information needed to manage and protect our SAV species. “Without the help of our volunteers, we could never understand what’s really going on with SAV on this broad of a geographic scale.”

The programs are designed to allow people with different capacities to participate. Volunteers can simply snap a photo of SAV and upload it to the online Water Reporter app, or they join a volunteer crew to be trained and do more intensive sample collection at Watch-a-thon events.” Canoeing in the beautiful freshwater tidal marsh and collecting data for SAV Watchers is awesome,” says Kathy Baker-Brosh, one of the Otter Point Creek SAV Watchers. “It feels great to be part of the conservation effort for this important habitat.”

In the coming year, Swerida hopes to organize an independent monitoring program for people to start collecting data on their own.

“Bringing this monitoring effort from the Chesapeake Bay Program to our community has hugely benefited everyone involved,” says Swerida. “Scientists get important data; managers gain better understanding to inform decisions; and volunteers experience the beautiful ecosystem, have fun, and make real contributions to caring for their environment.  And we all get to see how cool SAV is! I encourage everyone to find a Reserve or Riverkeeper to  bring a new group of SAV Watchers to life.”

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ReservesChesapeake Bay, MarylandCommunity Science Fills in the Gaps