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Explore beyond the shore with underwater robots and the Marine Protected Area (MPA) Collaborative Network

California coast, California

Featured image for the project, Explore beyond the shore with underwater robots and the Marine Protected Area (MPA) Collaborative Network


The Marine Protected Area (MPA) Collaborative Network (CN) is an umbrella organization that supports a network of 14 coastal county, volunteer based MPA stakeholder groups or “collaboratives.” The mission of the CN is to empower coastal communities to advance MPA management and encourage ocean stewardship by engaging local stakeholders. The 14 collaboratives include over 1,200 members representing hundreds of distinct organizations. Collaborative members include scientists, anglers, California Native American Tribes, nonprofits, educators, ocean businesses, museums/aquaria, and government agencies at the municipal, county, state, and federal levels. The CN provides the information, structure, support, and interagency communication to facilitate the creation of collaborative groups that are uniquely suited to local needs. What sets this model apart is the bottom-up, localized, and participatory approach to resource management.

Through a partnership with Sofar Ocean and National Geographic’s S.E.E. Initiative, each collaborative was donated two Trident mini-remotely operated vehicles (mini-ROVs).  These ROVs allow for simple, unobtrusive observation of aquatic habitats and animals, and can be used to improve our understanding of the biodiversity and biogeography of the California coast. The CN aims to further diminish participation barriers to local resource management  by constructing an easy-to-use system for volunteers to upload footage captured during an ROV expedition and get crowd-sourced feedback on taxonomic classification through iNaturalist. These subtidal observations will also benefit a concurrent project, led by the California Academy of Science (CAS), the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC), and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), that is building the capacity to use crowdsourced community-contributed observations to understand and monitor biodiversity across California’s coast and MPAs. We hope that such a platform would create an enjoyable and educational experience for communities in California, one that encourages and strengthens their engagement with coastal resource management and contributes meaningful biodiversity observations over space and time.


The Project

Our goal is to build an online tool for community members to upload video footage from the Trident mini-ROVs. The community has envisioned a tool similar to the marine organism identification program Fathom-Net, developed by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. The tool would be a web platform capable of processing underwater footage through a visual-identification algorithm, isolating individual frames containing identifiable organisms, and uploading those stills onto a volunteer-driven biodiversity data platform such as iNaturalist. Once organisms are identified by crowdsourcing knowledge from researchers and community experts on iNaturalist, data from these observations can then inform monitoring, management, and an overall assessment of coastal health.

The web platform should be intuitive to use and easy to explain to a diverse array of community members. Furthermore, the platform should provide feedback to the user at various stages in the process. Rather than functioning as a “black box,” we envision a workflow that engages the user and allows for learning opportunities. For example, during the uploading step, the user may want to know how many organisms were identified by the program. Additionally, when species are identified on iNaturalist, it would be great if the user could be notified, perhaps through an email provided during the uploading phase. Ultimately, the tool should be an engaging experience for coastal communities and encourage participation in biodiversity data collection.

In order to accomplish this goal, we are seeking partnership with a scientist capable of integrating object-detection algorithms into a user-friendly web-platform. They should have experience not just with image recognition programs, but also with web development and data handling and the ability to communicate through an application program interface (API) with iNaturalist. Exact specifications and functionality will be determined once a scientist has been brought on board and can provide expertise on how best to build the platform.

The CN plans to have a testable pilot available for next year’s Snapshot Cal Coast in June of 2022 to test the platform during the statewide bioblitz event. Beyond Snapshot Cal Coast, the CN hopes this project will help stakeholders and the public engage with resource management, participate in community-based science, and contribute to statewide biodiversity records year-round.


Timeline and Milestones

We would like to have a testable pilot ready in time for Snapshot Cal Coast (by June 2022).

Project Team

Community Leads

Calla Allison has been playing and working in the coastal waters of California her entire life. She began with a 16-year career as a State Parks Lifeguard, working on the lifeguard boat, making rescues from shore, and teaching Junior Lifeguards in Santa Cruz and San Diego.  After serving on the Lifeguard Exchange to New Zealand, she became interested in international environmental policy.  She was especially interested in how to apply high level policy to on-the-ground, grassroots driven action and stewardship. Much of what Calla learned about local ocean policy implementation came from her years as the Marine Protection Officer for the City of Laguna Beach and as Director for the Orange County MPA Council (OCMPAC). After serving as a member of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative’s South Coast Regional Stakeholder Group, she became focused on expanding the OCMPAC model statewide, and the Collaborative Network was born. Calla holds a Master’s degree in Pacific International Affairs from UC San Diego. She loves to travel, bodysurf, and play water polo.


Nicole Palma: As a sunny South Florida native, Nicole has spent most of her life on the water, boating, fishing, camping, diving and exploring with family and friends. She has worked with various non-profit organizations, coordinating and developing environmental and science education and outreach programs. She is an advocate for the use of citizen science and technology in research and educational programs. She has also spent a lot of time underwater completing reef fish, benthic, and lobster surveys on SCUBA in the waters around South Florida, the Dry Tortugas, and the Bahamas. She holds a Master of Professional Science Degree from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science where she studied Exploration Science. Her graduate project with the National Park Service’s South Florida/Caribbean Network focused on establishing a pilot protocol for utilizing 3D modeling techniques to inventory and monitor coral reefs. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Miami where she majored in Environmental Science and Policy as well as Biology.


Aubrie Fowler calls Southern California home. She spends nearly every day exploring nature, especially during her ocean adventures like diving and sea cave kayaking. Aubrie is excited to bring her passion for marine conservation to the MPA Collaborative Network and dive deeper into California’s network of MPAs! She has worked with various non-profit organizations, including Surfrider Foundation, leading and coordinating members and volunteers. She worked as a California Sea Grant Fellow (2017-18) as the Resource Protection Specialist at the NOAA Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary where she led programs to reduce the threat of ship strikes to whales and collaborated with lobster fishermen to remove lost gear and other marine debris from the Channel Islands. She is an advocate for engaging youth, including as a Naturalist at Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment Program. She holds Bachelor and Master of Science degrees from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly) where she majored in Biological Sciences with an emphasis on Marine Biology and Fisheries. Aubrie’s thesis explored the inner workings of the stress response due to oxygen deprivation in intertidal mussels. The learn-by-doing attitude she practiced at Cal Poly translates into all her career pursuits.


Community Science Fellow

Kevin Murphy: Originally from Austin, Texas, Kevin has spent much of his life outdoors and dedicates himself as an avid learner of natural sciences.  While getting his degree in geology, he also studied ecology abroad in Australia, assisted geomorphic data collection in Hawaii, studied timber harvesting and erosion in Northern California, and worked alongside tribal groups in Minnesota to investigate the impact of mining runoff of wild rice.  He enjoys working collaboratively with others, discovering new interdisciplinary connections between fields, and understanding the systems that describe the natural world.  He is currently going into the second year of his PhD and hopes to focus his research efforts on understanding the linkages between climate change, vegetation, and erosion in the Arctic.  As the Thriving Earth Exchange fellow on this project, Kevin is excited to work with the MPA Collaborative Network to create a tool that will make subtidal coastal monitoring an easy, engaging activity for community members.

Scientist Wanted

Inputs Needed

  • Front-end web development
  • Computer vision engineering


  • Experience with publicly available machine learning/computer vision APIs

(ex: Google MLKit, Amazon Rekognition, etc.)

  • Industry experience (preferred)
  • Remote engagement is fine
  • Community is open to working with graduate students

Desired Platform Features

  • Detects and tracks marine organisms (flora and fauna) within uploaded video footage
  • Distills footage to individual still frames of detected marine organisms
  • Gives feedback to user after detecting organisms and isolating stills
  • Uses iNaturalist API to upload stills for identification
  • Gives feedback to user after organism has been identified on iNaturalist

Personal Qualities

  • Strong communicator
  • Flexible collaborator
  • Skilled project manager
  • Ability to work independently


Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact to which they can contribute as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.

Interested in volunteering as a scientist? Apply now!

Collaborating Organization(s)

  • California Academy of Sciences
  • MPA Collaborative Network (14 collaboratives across California and their members)
  • American Geophysical Union Thriving Earth Exchange


This project is supported by funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.