Grab your towel, sunscreen and eOceans’ new app that tracks COVID-19’s impact on our waters

Jackie Gill - May 22, 2020 Dr. Christine Ward-Paige, CEO and founder of eOceans, is mobilizing communities around the world to track COVID-19's impact on our oceans

Things aren’t just changing on land thanks to COVID-19; they’re also changing in our oceans. One Canadian startup is leading the charge on tracking what, exactly, those changes look like for researchers around the world – with a little help from you and me.

We talked with eOceans CEO and founder Dr. Christine Ward-Paige about citizen science, the value of our oceans, and how COVID-19 is making waves on coastlines around the world.

What is eOceans all about?

Ocean science is typically manual, siloed and slow. We’re still writing down our observations one at a time, as scientists or citizen scientists. Whether you’re on a whale watching boat or a sailing boat, you’re writing down latitude, longitude, date, time, one humpback whale, over and over and over again. Then you sit down at a computer, you re-enter that data into a spreadsheet and you analyze that data.

As a scientist who has collected years and years of field data, and as someone who has also run global citizen science crowdsourcing projects, I wanted a solution that allowed scientists working in academia, government, industry, not-for-profits and consulting companies to use the same platform as everyone else.

What kind of impact has COVID-19 had on the ocean science community? What’s changed?

With tourism essentially stopping – a lot of research around the world is facilitated by tourism, by flights to get to places – a lot of scientific projects have been canceled. Researchers just can’t go ahead without getting there, or without the people to help facilitate it.

The second piece was that people were noticing whales or dolphins coming inshore, turtles that are having the opportunity to nest and hatch without hordes of tourists around. On the other hand, there were many negative stories around people using the oceans where they have previously not been able to. So in the case of marine protected areas, fishers are going in and illegally poaching inside of protected areas or harvesting endangered species without the watchful eye of management or tourism.

And also, in Nova Scotia, when they first closed the malls and gatherings, everyone ran to the beach. It really showed how important coastal access and the oceans are to people, even when it’s cold. It was still March, and everyone flooded the beaches. Really trying to understand what that value of the oceans is has been really an important driver of this.

How is eOceans addressing these changes?

We started in a global project called Our Ocean in COVID-19, and we’re recruiting scientists and collaborators in different countries around the world. We’ve defined 270 regions that we’re interested in. We can’t access them all, so we’re finding principal investigators to work with us and work with their community to help gather and generate the data that can help us understand how the oceans are valued and what people are seeing.

So if you’re on any one of our coasts, download the app and try it out when you are safely at the ocean and following the rules. Whether you’re going to a beach for a sail or a surf, just start logging so that we can start to understand what value the ocean has to Canadians.

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What made you decide to do something and get involved?

After 9-11, one study found that the reduced number of boats and noise in the Bay of Fundy released stress on the whales. [With COVID-19], people were asking the same questions. I thought, “This is exactly what I’ve designed eOceans for.”

We have publications and policy outcomes, like providing the data that helped get manta rays on the endangered species list and other shark sanctuary policies modified. We have a long-standing reputation of working in this field. But this is really the first time that we have a mobile app.

I thought, if we can help in any way, help scientists collect the data that they need, help people to understand the value of the oceans – not just for oil and gas, or aquaculture, or fishing, but for people – this is something I can do. I wanted to help out where I could.

READ: InkSmith founder Jeremy Hedges started making COVID-19 PPE because “it was just the right thing to do”

What advice do you have for other startups that want to help out?

Talk to people. Before starting anything, figure out if there is value that you can add, and listen to people so that it’s not out of context or out of place.

I think it’s important to stay focused on where you’re going, especially because startups have very limited resources. But also, don’t be afraid if there’s some way you can help out that makes sense. I was not afraid to just hunker down and say, I’m a small startup, I’m agile, and if people didn’t need eOceans right now, I don’t have to launch anything. I did because there was a need.

Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

Photo credit: Riley Smith

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