The potential and limitations of community science in the marine environment, with seahorses as a case study


Marine community science presents an important route to gather valuable scientific information and conduct population monitoring. It can also influence local management and policy, and thus contribute to marine conservation efforts. In fostering community science, the scientific community obtain benefits such as community engagement, cost-effectiveness, and broad geographic coverage for data collection. Seahorses, despite their popularity as flagship species, present notable research challenges, even to professional scientists, because of their patchy distribution and crypsis. They are thus good candidates for community science to address existing knowledge gaps.

The objective of this study is to analyze the potential of community science to study cryptic species as seahorses, using the iSeahorse program as a case study. I downloaded and analysed the iSeahorse observations collected between October 2013 and April 2022 that included 35 of the 46 known seahorse species. I then compared results with existing assessments produced from 2014-2017 by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. I also analysed longitudinal data generated by a non-profit organization as part of the iSeahorse Trend Monitors program. Data were collected for two species over a five-year period in two locations in Tampa Bay, Florida, using otter trawls and seine nets.

I found that iSeahorse Observations expanded the geographic ranges for seven seahorse species, identified new habitats for 24 species, expanded the recorded depth range for 14 species, and generated new information on sex ratio for 15 species and on pregnancy seasonality for 11 species. The Trend Monitoring that followed iSeahorse protocols led to helpful insights into population densities, depth distributions, sex ratios, pregnancy patterns, and torso lengths for both species. It is clear that iSeahorse can greatly expand knowledge on seahorses, to a level that will help improve global conservation assessments. Work with the Trend Monitors also helped generate a social perspective on the program’s impact, challenges, and potential areas for improvement. Community science has great capacity to help grow knowledge on biological traits and for population parameters, while also highlighting conservation pressures and options. However, the power of community science for marine conservation still needs to be fully explored.

Camins Martinez, E. (2023). The potential and limitations of community science in the marine environment, with seahorses as a case study. MSc dissertation. The University of British Columbia.