Compromises and trade-offs in adapting the Big Seaweed Search in Mexico | Community Science

Hola! It’s been a busy two months since I last blogged to introduce the Big Seaweed Search (BSS) in Mexico. Today I want to continue by describing the programme that the team has created for BSS in Mexico, highlighting some of the differences with the programme in the UK and discussing some of the compromises and trade-offs we made when adapting the project to a new country.

To recap, BSS UK was developed by the Museum and the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). BSS invites people of all ages to record the presence/absence and abundance of 14 types of seaweed on the UK coast that are indicators of environmental change over time. BSS Mexico is adapting BSS UK on the Mexican Caribbean coast, where washed-up seaweed affects the environment and livelihoods dependent on tourism and/or fishing.

In a series of two blogs I am going to showcase how our Mexican colleagues have adapted both 1) the seaweed survey method and 2) education programme for their context. In this first blog, I am going to focus on adaptations made to the seaweed survey method.

Changes to the seaweed survey method

Many of the differences between the two surveys can be found in changes made to the survey method. In BSS UK, participants choose a 5m-wide strip of beach to survey, going from the sea to the top of the beach. Participants spend about an hour covering their entire area and must only record seaweeds that are attached to hard surfaces.

In the Mexican project, quadrats are surveyed every 10 metres along the beach, which is a systematic survey method that allows “drift” (seaweed that is washed up on the beach from elsewhere) to be recorded. The UK project only records seaweeds growing at the survey location, so records do not include drift.

A participant in Big Seaweed Search Mexico collecting specimens on the beach from a quadrat square.
A participant in Big Seaweed Search Mexico collecting specimens on the beach from a quadrat square.
The microscope icon used in the Big SeaweedSearch Mexico identification guide to indicate when a seaweed should be sampled.
Microscope icon

Here in the UK, to ensure data quality, participants upload photos of each species of seaweed they identify to a website for the Museum’s seaweed researcher Juliet to verify. In Mexico, however, in addition to photos, participants are asked to collect samples of any species they find that: (1) they cannot identify, (2) do not appear in the identification guide, or (3) appear in the identification guide with a microscope icon.

Sampling allows the Mexican team to include seaweeds that are only identifiable under a microscope, but it does mean participants have to carry extra kit: a quadrat square, a rope marked at 10m intervals, a hand scale to weigh the biomass that will be preserved, a mesh bag (to drain the biomass) and airtight bags to transport the biomass for preservation. This is in addition to the camera/mobile phone and (optional) magnifying glass required to take part in BSS UK. Also, in BSS Mexico, participants’ species identifications are verified either on the beach or back in a classroom, by professional researchers.

The protocols in both the UK and Mexico have been designed to meet the scientific aims of each project, but you can now see some of the trade-offs we made to adapt BSS in Mexico and how they affect the participants’ experience.

The simpler method in the UK is designed so that participants can guide themselves, but it requires us to provide even clearer and more accessible information about the science behind the project and feedback to participants through the website. Although the more complex Mexican method requires specialist equipment and scientists to be present on the beach when the survey is taking place, this has the benefit that the scientists can respond to participants’ questions in real time.

My next blog will tell you more about the training and educational programmes that have been designed to accompany the project in each country, especially to support youth participation.

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