Citizen Science

David Anderson takes part in a Waterbug Blitz.

Look, I’m not really an aquatic insect guy, and generally fade out internally when fellow fly fishers start crapping on about them at anything more than the “Oh look, some caddis,” or “Gee, that sure is a hell of a lot of mayflies!” level. Honestly, I don’t know much about entomology, and the Latin required to truly understand it has both kept me off the dance floor and out of science books my whole life. Understanding how that obviously limits my ability to bore the very will to live out of non-fly-fishers and, perhaps more importantly, how it may even be impacting on my catch rates, I leapt with only a little reluctance at the opportunity to spend a day on the Ovens River at Bright with John Gooderham to see how the Waterbug Blitz works. John, co-author of The Waterbug Book (with Edward Tsyrlin), and one of Australia’s leading authorities on aquatic insect life, describes himself as a ‘tame freshwater ecologist’ and within minutes of meeting him it’s clear that aquatic insect life is far less linguistically challenging and far more entertaining than I first feared. And — given all the problems our fisheries currently face through water and habitat degradation and climate change — far more important. About the Waterbug Blitz With government funding approved in 2017, Gooderham and the team behind the program set out to ‘reinvigorate the Australian community’s awareness, concern for, and care of, their local waterways’ through a better understanding of the insect life within. It also happens to be a valuable way to draft us punters into gathering and growing the data available to scientists. Centred around a well developed phone app, ‘The Waterbug App’, the idea is that we, as newly minted and concerned citizen-scientists, head to our favourite waterways, net some bugs, identify and count them, photograph them, return them to the water unharmed and then share our findings back through the app. Everything is clear, easy-to-follow and in a language you probably already speak. This data is then vetted, mapped and added to the limited historical data available, and in the longer term, will hopefully help form a better understanding of the health of the water courses we fish. As fly fishers we are perfect fodder for this. You, the citizen scientist Everything you need to know about the app, the collection and identification process and submitting the final data is on the website. Viewing the short and sweet videos there is certainly the best way to see how it’s done — The first and only step in the process that’s not free is sourcing the gear needed for waterbug collection before starting a survey. The website’s shop has a full 2 to 6 participant kit available for sale for $225, with a net, three picking trays, four sorting trays, tools for handling the catch, a 15x magnifying glass with LED, a printed and laminated A3 identification chart and a carry box. There are also tablets to sterilise the gear between surveys to hinder the spread of Chytrid fungus that endangers the local frogs. The only thing you might need to add to that is a bucket or two and a portable table and chair for the sorting. Of course, you can make up your own kit as well with this as a guide. Once you’ve selected a location and are set up with collection gear, download the app and then register with your name and email. Next, after logging on, you select one of three survey type options in ‘mayfly’, ‘quick’, or ‘detailed’. Allow around 20 minutes for the very quick mayflies-only option, approximately 1–2 hours for a quick survey and up to a full day for the very detailed site assessment. The latter is perfect for groups. Next you select the type of water you’re surveying, as ‘River’, ‘Wetland’ or ‘Dam’, then name the location. A GPS tag is added automatically (with your phone’s location services activated) and you can then add a photo and mention any nearby landmarks. The next page will ask you for a basic breakdown of the area with percentages of habitat type. Once completed, you’ll advance to a picture of an empty ice cube tray with a plus sign over the first. Now you’re ready to collect waterbugs and sort them. The collection process using the net is best demonstrated by viewing the videos on the website, but basically, depending on the water type you’re collecting in, it’s all about how you swing the net. For still water it involves sweeping the net back and forth in a semicircular motion to stir the bugs up from the bottom. In running water, you simply hold the net in the current on the bottom and disturb the rocks and gravel upstream to dislodge them. After a few passes, the net is emptied into one of the larger trays. Now sorting into the separate ice cube trays can begin. Again, it’s best to view the online video to see how this is done. Once completed, you should have an ice cube tray with the subjects segregated by species into individual compartments. You might have one or many of a given species in each compartment, but they all need to be uniformly grouped. Now the app comes into play again. From the ice cube tray page, you hit the plus sign and it will guide you through any of the three ways to identify the collected waterbugs. The first, ‘Key’, is the best if you don’t know what you’re looking at, as the app will take you through identification with a few simple questions over charming line drawings that will eventually lead to a result. This is the best option for children and absolute beginners. Alternatively, ‘Speedbug’ is quicker if you do have a basic idea of what you’ve got. Here you identify your catch by selecting from a menu of simple silhouette drawings of the various orders of aquatic life and then answer a few further questions until you reach the final result. This is probably the best method for fly fishers or more experienced users of the app. The last is a more specific menu that has the order name of subject and then more technical questions leading to a final identification. This option is certainly geared more towards scientists or people deeply interested in or studying aquatic insect life. Whatever method you choose, the final outcome of proper identification is a full colour photo of the waterbug with some Latin bragging rights and a range of information like habitat, size and movement. You will then be asked for the number of waterbugs in the compartment and a photo of it so the entry can be vetted after submission. An outline of the waterbug type is then put over the completed segment on the app and the plus sign advances to the next tray segment. Repeat the process for every segment of your tray until it’s complete and then press next. The last page is a summary of your survey including a quick interpretation as to the health of the aquatic life at the site and a ‘Signal’ score that can be compared to later surveys at the same location. Press ‘submit’ and congratulations, you’re a citizen-scientist! As helpful as the Waterbug Blitz is to science, you don’t need to be deeply interested in that science, well educated or even one of us ‘greenies’ to do this. It’s perfect for fly-fishers and fly-tiers who simply want to see what’s crawling around down there and to gain a clearer understanding of the health of their favourite water. It’s also a lot of fun as a group or club activity and a brilliant way to involve children in the sport, the science, or both. If your club, class or school is interested in participating, you can arrange training sessions either for beginners or advanced through the program, which provides the experts and the gear to get you started. Contact them at to get prices and details.

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