After many requests we ran a Community Hub event to tackle one of our most-asked questions: how can you start your own citizen science project? This was part of our SHiFT Hub event series, where events are run by expert individuals in our community, for our community. 

Citizen science provides a way for individuals and communities to gather valuable data that adds to global data sets and can inform policy, but starting your own project can seem daunting and it can be difficult to know where to start. At this Hub event, eXXpedition Ambassador and Living River Foundation founder Tanya Ferry and Madeleine Berg from Fidra and the The Great Nurdle Hunt shared their experiences. We want to share some of their top tips with you.

Last week, Madeleine shared how you could use The Great Nurdle Hunt model to integrate citizen science into your work. This week, we will learn more from Tanya Ferry who launched her own citizen science project on the Thames in London and Medway in Kent.

The Living River Foundation

eXXpedition ambassador Tanya Ferry sailed with us on two legs of eXXpedition Round Britain in 2017 but she was already creating change on plastics and river health through her day job at the Port of London Authority. As an aquatic ecologist, scuba diver, sailor and swimmer, she had always been passionate about connecting others with the estuary – her eXXpedition experience just gave her another deeper aspect to focus on. 

When carrying out citizen science on the Thames during her eXXpedition experience, she was shocked to discover the prevalence of microplastics – visually more than any of the other samples. She wanted to know more about where they were coming from and if this sampling was truly reflective of the ongoing situation on the Thames. After bouncing ideas around with other members of the community, she launched the Thames Manta project to dig deeper into the impact of microplastics in her local environment in the Thames and Medway. This then evolved into what is now the Living River Foundation.

What is Thames Manta?

The Thames Manta Project is an entirely volunteer-led citizen science project collecting microplastic samples in the Thames and Medway estuary. The aim of the science is to contribute to scientific studies exploring the sources of the microplastic, as well as tracking seasonal, geographical and temporal changes. 

How was it set up?

Tanya uses a small commercial boat to pull a manta trawl similar to that used on her eXXpedition voyage, but of course it was more complicated than it sounds. She organised for the manta trawl to be custom-built to specifications from ocean research organisation 5 Gyres. Using this particular spec means that data collected can be submitted to 5 Gyres to be utilised within their global data set too. 

The boat itself is only eight feet long – a bit different to the 72-foot challenge yacht used during Round Britain 2017! This meant that the trawl could not be lifted and thrown into the water in the same way, so a custom lift had to be built to get the trawl into the required position. 

Tanya admits that she was quite impatient so in order to get started as quickly as possible she utilised a boat that she already personally owned that also had the right licence to move around in the areas she wanted to research. Permits were also required to trawl – as they are in many parts of the world – because of the risk of capturing fish in the manta trawl net. 

What’s different about trawling in a river?

As well as the specific permits required for operating a boat and deploying a trawl in a river environment, Tanya highlighted that some of the protocols had to be adapted. For example, you often cannot trawl for as long because the manta net gets too full of sediment and aquatic plants, making the samples very challenging to sort for microplastics. 

On tidal rivers, you are also subject to the natural ebb and flow of the tides which means that start times can sometimes be less than appealing for volunteers or even just practically difficult if they have to travel to a location to start at 6am. Because of the UK weather, the project is paused over the winter. 

What has the project achieved so far?

The Thames Manta project has had three years of sampling – it would have been more if the project had not been interrupted by COVID-19. As a project run by volunteers it is incredibly cost-effective for an on-the-water research mission and it continues to attract a lot of media attention. The samples collected have been shared with scientific partners who are in the process of working these into their studies.

How can you get involved?

If you are close enough, you can volunteer to help with sampling on the boat on the Thames or Medway. There are also other opportunities to help share the story of the project and amplify the impact so more conversations can be had about microplastic pollution in rivers. You can also share the story with other people to spread the world – microplastics are not just an ocean plastic problem, it goes much further than that! 

You can follow Tanya’s work @river_living on Twitter and @livingriverfoundation on Instagram, and you can contact Tanya on [email protected]

More about SHiFT Hub Events

eXXpedition runs regular events for our community and beyond. Keep an eye on our social channels for updates on upcoming public events, and browse our blog to find out the highlights of our community events and keep up with eXXpedition news.

Thank you to 11th Hour Racing who are supporting this work.