New app could turn outdoor enthusiasts into citizen-scientists

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If you enjoy wildlife, fishing, nature walks, paddle sports and other streamside activities, Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences now is giving you a chance to parlay those interests into becoming a citizen-scientist by observing and recording environmental and ecosystem changes. The only tool needed is a pencil or smartphone.

First Investigation of Stream Health (FISH), a new activity developed by the college's Agriculture and Environment Center and Penn State Extension, helps nature enthusiasts to see how the health of local streams and the habitats around them are changing over time — all while taking part in the outdoor activities they already love.

"FISH is a simple, family-friendly activity that asks easy-to-answer questions about what you see around a stream," said Kristen Kyler, project coordinator with the Ag and Environment Center's Lower Susquehanna Initiative. "You can participate using the paper FISH survey, and thanks to a newly developed mobile app, you now also can use your smartphone and an interactive website."

FISH originally was designed to be completed on paper, but Chesapeake Commons, an environmentally focused app developer, partnered with Penn State to create a smartphone app and website to make data collection smoother and easier. Participants can get started recording data by visiting the FISH website.

Kyler noted that the free program is useful for landowners with a stream on their property, as well as for concerned citizen-volunteers interested in observing a stream site on public lands, such as community parks. Stream sections most likely to see dramatic change over time are those that recently have been restored, have been cleared of invasive plants, have had trees planted along the bank, have had livestock fenced out, or have been the focus of other conservation-related projects.

During the past year, FISH was piloted with about 50 participants, including youth, farmers who recently had planted riparian stream buffers, and watershed-group members. Data reported show increases in vegetation that is beneficial to water quality and improved wildlife habitat, but increases in observed wildlife so far are minimal due to the small amount of data collected to date. With the mobile app making data collection much easier, project leaders hope to increase participation.

"The real improvements we have seen are in how the protocol has generated enthusiasm in the participants," said FISH project co-coordinator Jennifer Fetter, Penn State Extension watershed and youth development educator. "Landowners are engaged in their stream restoration projects in new ways, which we hope will lead to continued restoration on their, and their neighbors', properties."

FISH can encourage new landowners to restore their property when positive changes are recorded at a neighboring project site, according to Matt Royer, director of the Ag and Environment Center. "High deer populations, excellent fishing and new birds at the bird feeder can be huge motivators for landowners," he said.

FISH was developed with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through two large watershed-focused grant projects, the Conewago Creek Initiative and Greening the Lower Susquehanna. Input was provided by many partner organizations. More information about these grant projects can be found at the Agriculture and Environment Center's website.

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Last Updated January 06, 2016