Building “SealSpotter” and Working with Citizen Scientists

A new citizen-science initiative has just been launched in southern Australia. But don’t worry if you’re not local – volunteers can assist from anywhere in the world thanks to the online platform! Here to tell us more is Dr Rebecca McIntosh (with some help from Ross Holmberg) from Phillip Island Nature Parks.

Australian fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) are near-apex predators, and have been recognised for generations as being valuable in marine ecosystem research. Getting an idea of how many of them are born each year is one of the most accessible and informative ways of studying them, but it’s not easy.

Field work is physically demanding not only for the researchers, but also for the seals. From landing a small rubber dinghy on rocky shorelines (never turning your back on the unforgiving sea), to the large mammals with big teeth that run for the water at the sight of you. It seems strange that an adult male of 350 kg is scared of little me at 60 kg, but for a semi-aquatic mammal that is most at home in the sea, on land is where they are at their most awkward and vulnerable. That’s why we don’t visit the colony at all during breeding, when the males are defending harems and pups are being born; even though that’s the best time to count the pups.

The goal is conservation, so reducing disturbance impacts of field work when working on wildlife is always a priority. As soon as I learnt about drones many years ago, I knew we could make use of them in our research: maybe we could count the seals without even entering the colony; maybe we could get counts at the peak of breeding without the usual risks; maybe we could even make our counts more precise.

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Ross with a drone

Then Citizen Science became a thing and I thought “What a huge opportunity to share our passion for conservation and wildlife with the community, and build a relationship between people and science”. I love working on the fur seals, and I am a passionate conservation biologist. To bring interested people into that world without having to expose them and the fur seals to the reality of the field work is a dream come true.

My organisation, Phillip Island Nature Parks, is very supportive of innovative conservation projects, and recognises how important community engagement is. It was easy to get them excited by the potential of this idea, but there was still a gap.

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A drones-eye-view of a fur seal colony – but how to count the seals?

I can do the field work and I can use the open-source program R to analyse and examine data, but it would take me some effort to build the project I had in mind; a web portal where I can upload the drone images of the fur seals for people to count. Enter Ross – Ross has a physics and optics background, with a particular interest in space. He is good at big data and fast with code: a wild-west cowboy of the nerd world.

With our project approved by Phillip Island Nature Parks, we secured some additional funding from Telematics Trust and the Penguin Foundation, built an interactive web portal, gave it a catchy name “SealSpotter”, obtained our Remote Pilots and Aeronautical Radio Licences and captured the images of the fur seals that we needed. The puzzle pieces were finally fitting together, and I could see my dreams finally becoming reality.

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“Release the drone!”

SealSpotter was trialled with the help of Penguin Foundation members. Participants counted the fur seals for us, tested our portal, and provided useful feedback that we incorporated into the portal before going public. The launch on the 9th May 2018 was well received and we had citizen science collaborators from 21 countries around the globe within 24 hours. Currently, SealSpotter has 392 individuals working with us; collectively they have counted 42,357 images (including replicate counts, which we use to obtain an average for better results). I like to imagine people in land-locked regions interacting with science and exploring the fur seals and their offshore island colonies across south-eastern Australia – perhaps this is new for them. From the images, you literally get a bird’s eye view into the world of the fur seal: pups playing in rock pools; males sizing each other up; and many just resting, exhausted from their trips at sea, fishing and avoiding predators. There are also times when you see a fur seal that has become entangled in marine debris, typically commercial or recreational fishing material, but also plastic bags and general household rubbish.

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Fur seal entangled in a plastic bag (Photo: Karina Sorrell)

The relationship between scientists and the citizen science collaborators is mutual. Our collaborators communicate with us via email and through social media to ask questions and provide recommendations for improvements. We interact with the community who are helping us obtain the data we need and we receive positive feedback that the work we are doing is worthwhile and valued by the community. Since working in the citizen science space, we have obtained a deeper understanding of the importance of this community support. It helps us maintain our efforts and stay positive when working on the front-line of climate change and marine plastic pollution.

For our research, this relationship means that for the first time, we can precisely measure not only overall seal numbers, but also the prevalence of marine debris entanglements, which we have been underestimating for many years now because of the difficulties in counting them onsite.

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SealSpotter allows scientists to get better counts of how many fur seals are suffering from entanglements. These can be tricky to spot in the field.

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Unfortunately, many more fur seals are entangled than previously realised.

For the citizen scientists we want to provide opportunity and insight into a world that may be new and interesting. The ultimate success is to enhance our community’s connectedness to their world, and enhance wellbeing through the opportunity to contribute to science. We want people to feel empowered when it comes to conservation and citizen science projects like SealSpotter can open up these doors. We have had some wonderful feedback from our collaborators; that they find it enjoyable, that counting seals relaxes them, and that they can use it as a short break from work. One participant came to Phillip Island and went out on the Nature Parks’ EcoBoat Adventure tour to Seal Rocks to meet the fur seals in person. She explained that she had been counting the fur seals on SealSpotter and wanted to see them with her own eyes and she loved it. Now that makes us very happy as well.

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Counting seals from the office (or even your living room) – much more enjoyable than dodging waves and seals in real life!

SealSpotter is quickly becoming not just a vital key in our ongoing research, but also in university degrees in collaboration with Monash University, and school education programs including STEM Sister mentorships.  We’re able to give students access to real science in real time, and we couldn’t do it as well without our collaborating citizen scientists. So thank you to all our SealSpotters, we look forward to building our conservation efforts with you.

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Images courtesy of Phillip Island Nature Parks.

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