What is Volunteer Seabirds at Sea?
Volunteer Seabirds at Sea (VSAS) is a citizen science initiative which recruits and trains volunteers to collect high quality seabirds at-sea data from vessels of opportunity around the UK. Volunteers are trained to conduct surveys using the European Seabirds at Sea (ESAS) method, which is widely recognised as being the 'gold standard' for seabird data collection.
Monitoring seabirds at sea provides essential information to allow the UK to meet its national and international seabird conservation commitments (e.g. under the Birds Directive, Marine Strategy Framework Directive and OSPAR), and data from at-sea surveys can contribute to understanding the drivers for changes in seabird distribution patterns and relative abundance. Vessels of opportunity, such as ferries, are cost-effective platforms for surveys which cover the same area of sea over long periods of time, making them an excellent resource for seabird monitoring.
VSAS launched in 2018 as part of an environmental initiative called the Marine Awareness Programme. The initiative was set up by the Scottish ferry operator, CalMac, and aimed to facilitate marine biodiversity monitoring and raise awareness of the marine environment. As part of the initiative, JNCC were asked to lead on implementing a seabird monitoring scheme on the CalMac ferry network, and this is how VSAS was born.
Since 2019, regular VSAS seabird surveys have been undertaken by trained volunteers on several CalMac ferry routes. In 2022, JNCC partnered with the marine science charity, MARINElife, to expand the VSAS programme into English waters, utilising MARINElife's established network of citizen science ferry routes. Over the last 4 years, 130 volunteers have attended VSAS training courses around the UK.
VSAS trains volunteers to survey all species of seabird found in the UK; from the familiar gull species to the less well-known shearwaters, skuas and petrels. Prior to VSAS, most regular seabird monitoring work in the UK has focused on land-based annual colony monitoring. As a result, there are few widescale data available to inform trends in abundance and distribution of at-sea populations. VSAS aims to fill this knowledge gap by co-ordinating regular volunteer-led at-sea surveys around the UK. The data collected can be used to inform seabird conservation and could feed into related areas of work, such as offshore development, fisheries management and how we respond to pollution incidents.
VSAS training courses are based on the traditional ESAS training course format, which typically takes place over three days and assesses attendees in several key competency areas. The main benefit of the traditional ESAS format is the use of a standardised methodology to ensure consistency in data recording.
Unfortunately, other aspects of the ESAS format are less compatible with a citizen science project – namely high costs, formal assessments and advanced experience requirements. To combat this, JNCC adapted the traditional format and developed a mentoring scheme.
The mentoring scheme reduces the need to recruit lots of highly experienced seabird surveyors by offering training at different ability levels, including a course for experienced birders and a course for beginners/intermediates. As VSAS surveys are conducted in pairs, experienced volunteers work with a less experienced volunteer and help them to develop their survey skills 'on the job'. This pairing ensures data quality is maintained whilst enabling volunteers of all abilities to partake in citizen science. Furthermore, all VSAS courses are delivered free of charge and do not involve formal assessments, further increasing the accessibility and appeal of the programme.
These adaptations to the traditional ESAS training scheme help to maximise the programmes potential to recruit volunteers. Building a large pool of volunteers is crucial to the programmes success as it increases the number of surveys which can be carried out and thus the amount of data which can be collected.
JNCC aims to hold free volunteer training courses every few months to allow more people to get involved with the VSAS programme. All training courses include a theoretical classroom day to learn the survey method, followed by either one or two practical boat days to put your new skills into practice.
Training courses typically accommodate around eight attendees, therefore there is often competition for places and a waiting list for those who are not initially offered a place on the course.
The following courses are offered:
Lead Surveyor Course
A three-day course for experienced birders. This course is suitable for those who are able to confidently identify all UK seabirds and are willing to take a leading role during surveys, offering guidance to volunteers with less experience.
Accommodation and meals will be provided for the duration of this course, and those who excel in the key competency areas will be awarded ESAS certification.
A two-day course for beginner/intermediate birders. This course is suitable for those new to the world of seabird monitoring who are looking to gain new skills and experience.
The on-going success of the project depends on the continued support of our fantastic volunteer community.
If you are interested in getting involved with the project and attending a VSAS training course, please fill out this online form and a member of the team will be in touch, as and when training opportunities become available.