Fishing boats become citizen science data platforms in South Devon, UK, using Secchi disk to measure phytoplankton

Research assistant Kevin Arscott taking a Secchi disk reading (Image: Richard Kirby)

Fishermen in South Devon, UK, have turned their boats into “massive data platforms” for a citizen science study

They have become the first commercial fishers to gather data for the Secchi Disk Study, which is gathering data on the state of the oceans’ phytoplankton. To date, there is little scientific information on the health of the tiny marine plants that form the basis of global food chains. The data will also help fishermen manage stocks, a skipper told BBC News. We’ve been working with scientists on-and-off for several years, doing studies on crabs and lobsters, migration patterns and it’s been an easy progression to work with the Secchi disk to measure the plankton because nothing has really been done on the plankton,” explained Alan Steer, a third generation fisherman and skipper of the Superb-Us. “Understanding the plankton has a real relevance to what we do because it is the food source for everything in the sea.”

Mr Steer and other members of the South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen association have been collecting data for the Secchi Disk Study, a citizen science project. Launched in 2014, the project allows sailors and fishermen to download an app to their smartphone that allows them to upload readings taken from their Secchi Disk. The white disk measures 30cm (1ft) in diameter and is lowered into the water on the end of a tape measure. When it is no longer visible from the surface, the reading – known as the Secchi depth – is recorded. “It’s very important to the fishing industry that we know the abundance of phytoplankton in the water because it determined the productivity right the way up through the whole food chain,” explained Richard Kirby, founder and lead scientist of the Secchi Disk Project. “They determine the amount of fish in the sea, the amount of crabs or lobsters on the seabed, even up to the number of polar bears on the ice.”

Superb-Us fishing boat (image: Richard Kirby)
Fishing boats, such as the Superb-Us, are regularly at sea – often in the same locations – and can harvest valuable data for scientists

Further information

BBC News article