Erica Donnelly-Greenan has seen some disturbing items in the stomachs of remote seabirds: bottle caps and even toy army men in the bellies of albatross, for example. The risks of plastic pollution aren’t confined to ingestion, either. Even airborne birds become the bycatch of abandoned fishing lines. But Donnelly-Greenan, a marine biologist at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, is assembling public data to do something about it.

Last month, Donnelly-Greenan published a study with her colleagues that analyzed beach surveys done by trained volunteers—so-called citizen scientists—in six coastal counties. Collectively, the surveyors observed 65,604 marine animal carcasses on California beaches in the past 20 years. Of these, 357 were cases of seabird entanglements. While disturbing, this information is necessary to assess and ultimately offer solutions to the problem of plastics.

“We need more data and understanding to get a fuller picture of how plastic impacts not only individuals but populations over time,” Donnelly-Greenan says. Bird researchers have long relied on the public to help gather these important observations. By deputizing citizen scientists to gather robust data, researchers can gain greater insights about the natural world.

When a coalition of state and research institutions launched the BeachCOMBERS (Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research) survey in 1997, they never intended for it to reveal the impacts of plastic debris. It was meant to assess the health of sanctuaries in the Monterey Bay area. Since it began, though, more than 200 volunteer citizen scientists have surveyed California beaches every month, and the resulting dataset offered Donnelly-Greenan and her colleagues valuable insights into the impacts of plastics.

Read the full article about citizen scientists collecting data by Virginia Gewin at YES! Magazine.