The BeachCOMBERS are gathering data that can be averaged over several years, and will serve to provide "normal," or background, rates of mortality. Then, in the case of an oil spill or other catastrophic event, differences in mortality will help elucidate the amount of damage caused. Volunteers have been trained in animal identification and record-keeping skills, to ensure the most accurate data possible. For each animal found, volunteers note the location, species, age, sex, presence of oil on or near the carcass, probable cause of death, and degree of decomposition.
"It's an excellent way for volunteers to participate with the Sanctuary," says Scott Benson, Volunteer Coordinator and Data Manager of BeachCOMBERS. "The Sanctuary can only be as good as local people make it; this gives them a chance to be involved directly with the science of surveying their marine environment."
The BeachCOMBERS program has already provided useful information for several recent incidents. "It's been amazing to me that in our first few months we've been able to help so much," says Benson.
In the summer of 1997 BeachCOMBER volunteers began to detect a much larger than normal number of dead common murres on local beaches. Without the program's regular monitoring, the incident would never have been noticed, according to Andrew DeVogelaere, Sanctuary Research Coordinator and Senior Scientist (and BeachCOMBER volunteer). Sanctuary and Department of Fish and Game officials began investigating possible causes, and have concluded by reviewing biotoxin data and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) data that the die-off was caused either by a red tide event or by an increase in gill-net fishing in Monterey Bay. "Without this monitoring program, no one would have actually pulled the NMFS data out and studied it, and we wouldn't have been aware of the increase in gill-net fishing," explains DeVogelaere.
The BeachCOMBERS program also proved extremely useful in the recent "Monterey Bay Bird Incident," in which a mysterious oil was spilled in the Monterey Bay and coated hundreds of seabirds. (See related story on page 7.) The program was able to provide a background team to do all the field surveys for the spill event because it had the volunteers, data sheets, and beach survey segments already in place to step right into action. "In addition to helping out with that spill event, we now know the other players involved, and they know us," explains Benson. "It builds the basis for cooperative work in the future."
The program is largely based on an ongoing effort the Gulf of the Farallones NMS is using very effectively on beaches north of Año Nuevo. "Both offices are looking forward to sharing our data so they can be made available on a Geographic Information System (GIS) and easily interpreted," explains DeVogelaere.
BeachCOMBERS is an excellent example of local and state
institutions working cooperatively. It was started with a CUEREC (California
Urban Environmental Research and Education Center) grant to Dr. Jim Harvey,
and then received matching resources from Moss Landing Marine
Laboratories. The Sanctuary also donated funds, and California's office of Oil
Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) donated cameras
and sampling equipment. The Pacific Grove Natural
History Museum has helped with training and identification
of birds. The program also has standing cooperative
arrangements with county marine mammal stranding
networks, SPCAs, Native Animal Rescue, the California Dept.
of Parks and Recreation, and others.
Having volunteers out walking beaches has proven to be more valuable than
just surveying the natural environment. BeachCOMBER Scott Benson and a
fellow volunteer, while surveying Zmudowski State Beach, heard screams and saw
a woman flailing in the water, being pulled away from shore by a rip tide. Benson,
a certified California lifeguard, swam out to the woman, calmed her down, and
brought her back in to shore. Paramedics who arrived
later are reported to have said that Benson saved the women's life.
William J. Douros has been named MBNMS
Superintendent. Sanctuary staff are excited to
begin working with Douros, who previously served as Deputy Director
of the Santa Barbara County Energy Division, and has extensive
background in marine regulatory issues, setting policy, and ocean
research. He assumed his new position in January 1998. Look for a
detailed article in the next issue.