SANTA CRUZ -- Sol Katzman and Stew Perlman are spending a sunny Saturday morning on Scott Creek Beach leaning over a rotting sea lion carcass.
The body has lost its moisture and begun to flatten into the sand. The two men manage not to grimace as they measure the pungent heap from nose to tail and tie green twine around the rear flipper to show it's been counted.
Katzman, 60, and Perlman, 64, are "citizen scientists," part of a volunteer project that collects information about beach-cast marine mammals, birds and turtles along 40 miles of Monterey Bay coastline, from Davenport to Carmel.
The BeachCOMBERS project, which turned 15 this year, has explained mysterious die-offs, exposed harmful fishing practices and traced oil spills back to surprising culprits.
The project's goal is to determine how much animal mortality is normal on various beaches, enabling year-to-year comparisons.
Project Manager Hannah Nevins, a seabird biologist with Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, said marine mammals and birds reflect the health of the whole environment they live in. Their population numbers mirror those of the species they eat, including forage fish such as anchovies and sardines, which are hard to count or monitor directly.
Scott Benson, now a marine ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, co-founded the program and managed it from 1997 to 2001. He said his goal was to get hard numbers and consistent data, which he thought were lacking in other volunteer survey programs.
Katzman works in bioinformatics and has no formal education in marine biology. But like all 73 of his fellow volunteers, he has gone through 20 hours of training to identify and document what washes ashore. He and Perlman, a high school English teacher before his retirement, walk the same stretch of beach the first week of each month.
November's survey of Davenport and Scott Creek beaches turned up only the sea lion and two seabirds. "If we come out here someday and there's a lot of stuff, we'll know something happened," Katzman said.
BeachCOMBERS, the latter part of the title which stands for Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research Surveys, has documented many of these "somethings."
In August 1997, volunteers arrived at Marina State Beach to discover 400 dead common murres -- penguin-like diving birds found all along the Pacific Coast. Karin Forney, of Moss Landing, was among the volunteers who documented the event. "There were stretches of the beach where I wasn't even standing up," she said. "I was just crawling from one carcass to the next."
Birds seemed healthy
Forney, now a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found it especially troubling that the murres didn't show obvious signs of illness. "These were plump, otherwise healthy looking birds," she said, "aside from the fact that they were dead."
Scientists suspected the cause was a fishing operation that had recently been established just offshore. The fisheries were using gillnetting, which hangs like a curtain down to the seafloor. Nevins said this method is especially dangerous because the nets are invisible to birds and mammals, which swim into them and become entangled.
The fisheries were legal. The nets were placed deeper than 180 feet, as the law required. But BeachCOMBERS' grim discovery prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to investigate. It found that 5,000 murres and more than 100 porpoises were being killed in the nets each year. Volunteers "raised the red flag," Forney said, documenting a local event that would have gone unnoticed. The minimum depth for California's gillnet fisheries was ultimately changed to 360 feet, effectively eliminating them from the bay.
The citizen scientists also record and collect samples of tar balls -- goops of petroleum that wash ashore from sea floor seepage, runoff from pollutants on land, or a spill from a boat or ship. Knowing what levels are normal helps scientists assess the damage in the event of a major spill.
In 2002, some of these oil samples became clues in a long-standing marine mystery. The 1980s and '90s saw occasional spikes in the number of oiled birds and mammals washed ashore, but researchers didn't know the source of the oil.
Tracing the oil
Scientists at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories "fingerprinted" BeachCOMBERS oil samples, comparing their chemistry to samples they had collected over the decades. The culprit behind the oil spikes turned out to be the S.S. Luckenbach. The cargo ship sank off San Francisco Bay in 1953 and has been sitting on the ocean floor with a belly full of oil ever since. When large enough waves rocked the hull, the old ship would release oil to the surface.
The findings prompted a $22.7 million cleanup effort that has removed most of the oil. Occasionally, though, the ghost of Luckenbach still rises and sends ashore oily seabirds.
BeachCOMBERS volunteers have documented everything from a murre baby boom to a spike in stillborn sea lion pups. They linked an influx of frostbitten pelicans to a northward expansion of the species' range -- good news for the once-endangered pelicans, despite the ghastly carcasses on the shore.
They traced mysterious foam in seabird feathers to a bloom of algae and shared their data with other researchers when the substance reappeared off the coast of Washington and Oregon.
The BeachCOMBERS forensic database is ever expanding, but those involved in the project believe it has an important role outside of the hard science. Volunteers become stewards of their assigned beaches, Nevins said, and they often explain their work to passers-by. "The public definitely observes us, and they want to know what we're doing," said Sharon McGuire, 62, an Aptos resident and volunteer since 2003.
While the volunteers are as enthusiastic as ever, money is growing tighter. The project needs funding for equipment, data entry, volunteer training and insurance. Nevins said federal budget cuts have forced the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to scale back its contributions, and she's struggling to find support.
A year of walks
The project's value isn't lost on the volunteers, who must commit to at least a year of monthly walks -- rain or shine -- to help build up the database. "This isn't just some feel-good little project," said former manager Benson, who continues to volunteer on beach walks.
After finishing their recent Saturday survey, Katzman and Perlman stood watching the surf for an extra half-hour, grateful for an unseasonably warm day and an excuse to be near the water.
"It's just something I enjoy doing," Katzman said, "and hopefully the data will mean something."