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Divers hit the water for citizen science


Brigid Veale
10 January 2012

Volunteer underwater diving groups from Eden on the south coast of New South Wales to Tweed Heads in the north are being assisted by Southern Cross University researchers to undertake ‘citizen science’ by collecting data on marine debris and threatened marine species.

The University has been contracted by the Hunter-Central Rivers Catchment Management Authority to undertake the project to build the skills of underwater volunteers across NSW with funding from the Australian Government’s Caring for Our Country program.

Throughout 2011, volunteer divers were trained by researchers from Southern Cross University’s National Marine Science Centre, in partnership with NSW coastal Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) and community members.

National Marine Science Centre project officer Bob Edgar said the organisation ‘Underwater Volunteers NSW’ (UVNSW) was formed to help the 11 community based underwater volunteer groups in NSW work together effectively.

“The activities undertaken by UVNSW members develop a sense of stewardship of their ‘local patch’ and raise community awareness about marine biodiversity along the NSW coastline,” Mr Edgar said.

The second stage of the project will provide support for underwater groups to actively collect data, which will contribute to ongoing conservation and management of the state’s marine environment.

“Standardised training protocols will enable volunteers to practice good citizen science and get out there and collect accurate data,” he said. “We have provided a framework and the training for these groups to ensure the data is robust and is useful for government agencies charged with managing the state’s marine environment.”

Mr Edgar said collecting data on marine debris was a focus for the project.

“Recent surveys by volunteers in the Nambucca and Red Rock areas revealed higher levels of marine debris than people might think. Fishing tackle was a common debris item along with beer bottles, plastic and the occasional shopping trolley,” he said.

Mr Edgar said the aim was also to equip the volunteers with the knowledge and skills to assess threatened and marine species, targeted fish species, pest species and large macro-invertebrates such as sea urchins, seastars and marine snails.

Associate Professor Steve Smith from the National Marine Science Centre said this project would provide much needed information.

“We have such a vast coastline and relatively few marine scientists. There is a critical need for data to effectively manage our marine ecosystems and these groups, involving around 300 individuals, will play an essential role,” Professor Smith said.

The volunteer dive groups involved in the project are: Byron Underwater Research Group, Solitary Islands Underwater Research Group, Port Macquarie Underwater Research Group, Great Lakes Underwater Group, Combined Hunter Underwater Group, Terrigal Underwater Group, Underwater Group of NSW, Eco Divers, Jervis Bay Dive Club, Nature Coast Marine Group and the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre.

Photo: A volunteer diver with some of the debris collected during an underwater clean-up in Coffs Harbour.