Dr. Julia Parrish founded COASST as a result of her long-time work on coastal seabirds of the Pacific Northwest, and her frustration with the limitation of academic and agency science programs. Able to collect detailed annual data on seabirds breeding at a single Washington State colony, Julia wondered whether the patterns of seabird population fluctuation observed at her study site—Tatoosh Island—were the same, or different, from colonies al along the coast. But time, money, and personnel limitations prevented either university scientists, or natural resource management agencies from collecting needed data.
The seeds of COASST were planted in Julia’s head while studying the murres of Tatoosh Island.
Julia recognized the need for a seabird monitoring program that would generate baseline data to help assess patterns of seabird mortality due to natural and human-induced events across both time and space. Without baseline data, she reasoned, we would only be able to speculate about causes of population change among our resident seabirds.
Given the increase of human use and impacts in the waters of coastal Washington where Julia worked, she envisioned the program providing data on both resident and migrant species; changes in mortality rates following oil spills; levels of chronic oiling; incidence of entanglement with fishing gear; and, possibly, cause of death. Instead of monitoring live birds—a difficult prospect for even the most assiduous of scientists or birders—Julia decided that a far more tractable seabird program could use bird carcasses—in fact, beached birds, as a standard monitoring unit. After all, beached birds were once alive, they died of something, in the coastal environment seabirds wash ashore regularly, and they can be identified—rigorously—by anyone.
Julia realized that a monitoring program utilizing coastal citizens could generate vital information about the state of Washington’s seabirds—and through them coastal environmental health—while simultaneously giving participants the opportunity to engage in university science, and become a part of the marine conservation dialog.
COASST’s first beached bird data came from Julia’s field notebooks on Tatoosh Island.
In July of 1998, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation embraced Julia’s vision and awarded a grant to establish the program. Julia then hired Dr. Todd Hass to run the program. Within two years, Julia and Todd created COASST—the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team. Along the way, they had designed an innovative guide—Beached Birds: A COASST Field Guide, invented a rigorous protocol, established the first beach sites for monthly data collection, and recruited COASST’s first 12 volunteers. Within its first official data collection year, COASST had secured its longest lasting partner—the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary—in the capable person of Mary Sue Brancato. Barbara Blackie started working for the sanctuary, and COASST, in 2000.
Dianna & Kathleen, two of the original 12 COASST volunteers trained in 1999.
Now 17 years old, COASST has steadily expanded from a nucleus of five beaches along the southern outer coast of Washington State, to nearly 450 beaches spread across northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. From a starting size of 12 ‘proto-volunteers’ ready to test even the most oddball notions Julia and Todd could throw at them, COASST has grown to more than 800 participants, making COASST the largest beached bird network in the world today.
COASST volunteers Sandy and Jill stop for a moment to fill in a datasheet on Fort Casey Beach.
And our participants are good. The COASST standard is that all data can be verified independently—by experts—so we know exactly how accurate our participants are when identifying disheveled carcasses on the beach. A stunning 85% percent of birds are identified correctly to species—and that’s over 100 species, and counting. Our ability to prove the high quality of our data makes COASST immediately useful to scientists and natural resource managers; and we’re in the business of sharing our data.
Originally designed to address the need for a rigorous baseline should there be an oil spill, COASST data and the COASST program have been and are being used for an amazing array of science and resource management projects, including:
- genetic ‘typing’ of Western Grebes, a Washington State Candidate for listing as Threatened or Endangered
- baseline monitoring for the introgression of avian influenza
- the local impacts of wind and weather on seabird beaching rates, or how to accurately assess just how many carcasses float ashore each year
- the use of beached bird data to indicate changing coastal conditions—the spectre of climate change?
- the likelihood that native Americans used naturally occurring mass mortality events as regular sources of food
- assessing gillnet bycatch events in Puget Sound, Washington
And we’re not done yet! COASST continues to add beaches and participants throughout its geographic range, as well as expand through partner programs. We published our second field guide—to beached birds along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the U.S. in 2002. We act as a sister program to beached bird start-ups in Argentina and Russia. Our data are being combined with beached bird programs in central California to create a comprehensive picture of seabird use of the West Coast.
But that’s just the beginning. COASST is a vibrant program because of the many, many coastal residents who care deeply about the marine environment, and are searching for ways to become true participants in the natural resource management and coastal conservation debate. In the next 10 years, COASST aims to extend its science collection programs to many different aspects of the marine environment, so that each coastal community becomes empowered. Beyond seabirds, COASST in its second decade will add data collection modules on marine mammals, beach debris, invasive species, and species indicative of climate change.