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). Data from opportunistic surveys can contribute to understanding the drivers for changes in distribution pattern and relative abundance. Ferries and other commercial shipping are excellent, cost-effective repeat platforms for surveys covering the same sea area over long time periods.
For over 20 years, volunteer surveyors have enabled NGOs to capture cetacean sightings data from ferries and other commercial vessels throughout Europe using similar methods to ESAS. The success of the cetacean NGO survey network demonstrates that volunteers can be recruited and trained to a high standard and in turn provide input into long-term monitoring projects.
As part of the CalMac Ferries Marine Awareness Programme, JNCC ran a pilot project in 2018 to assess the feasibility of recruiting and training volunteers to collect high quality seabirds at sea data from the CalMac Ferries route network. This proved a success and through this work, the Volunteer Seabirds at Sea (VSAS) scheme was born.
The key challenge in the development of the VSAS scheme was how to quickly build a network of volunteer surveyors and ensure that the data they collected met ESAS standards. A mentoring scheme was developed where training is delivered at two levels, both of which are volunteer focused, interactive and fun, and do not include the added pressure of assessment. Volunteers who have a high level of ornithological experience and are willing to act as mentors attend a three-day course which teaches the key element of the ESAS method and allows them to develop mentoring skills. A less intensive two-day course is offered to volunteers with less experience and allows them to develop good understanding of the ESAS method and to practise this in the field.
To ensure data standards are maintained during surveys, mentors are paired with less experienced volunteers and their role is to assess if data quality meets the ESAS standard and to provide coaching on the method and bird identification.
Surveys on selected CalMac ferry routes commenced in April 2019.
Marine Scotland funded a two-year volunteer coordinator position with MARINElife specifically for this project. They operate using MARINElife’s existing protocols, ensuring that VSAS benefits from the wealth of expertise MARINELife can provide.
JNCC aims to continue to hold training events to increase the pool of volunteer surveyors, ultimately to allowing the expansion of the VSAS survey network to other ferry routes.
You can keep up to date with VSAS news and surveys reports via its dedicated Facebook page. You can also follow its progress, and other JNCC seabird monitoring projects, through the Seabird Monitoring Team's Twitter account.