Improving Use and Awareness of Scientific Information: An EIUI Study of the Gulfwatch Monitoring Program

Gulfwatch samplingChemical contamination is a threat that impacts all waterways, especially those closest to human activity. Contamination of ecosystems can lead to consequences within trophic (food-web) structures and can percolate up trophic levels and impact human populations. Countless examples exist of mercury poisoning from contaminated fish overwhelming coastal communities. Other contaminants, such as other trace metals, chemicals from oil pollution, or from use of pesticides all have linkages to human health risks. The high risk to ecosystem and human health makes it necessary to monitor chemical contaminants over time. Monitoring can provide information about the status of various chemicals, the effects of remediation efforts, the consequences of major events such as oil spills, and can ultimately help managers and decision makers to mitigate the risks to humans and ecosystems.

The Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment (GOMC) is a joint Canadian and United States council. It’s second Action Plan Goal, regarding “Environment and Human Health,” the GOMC recognizes that “environmental conditions support the health of people and the ecosystem.” As part of the goal to improve or maintain healthy environments, environmental monitoring through the Gulfwatch Contaminants Subcommittee has been pursued for almost 25 years. Gulfwatch uses blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) tissues to monitor various metals, contaminants from oil or industry pollution, pesticides, among others. More than 50 selected sites around the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy region are monitored and the data are provided in various ways: raw data downloads, data reports, and data summaries (e.g., the State of the Gulf of Maine theme papers). The Gulfwatch program has been monitoring the Gulf of Maine region since 1991 providing large amounts of data and extensive effort to communicate findings to policy- and decision- makers. This study examined one of the five Gulf of Maine region jurisdictions, Nova Scotia, to determine if Gulfwatch data and information products had a role in policy- or decision- making relating to water quality or human health.


A mixed methods approach was employed to try to elucidate the uses of Gulfwatch information in Nova Scotia. First, a comprehensive list was compiled of all Gulfwatch output products (conferences, technical reports, published scholarly papers, fact sheets, etc.). From this list, one scholarly paper, by Chase et al. (2001), was chosen for citation analysis due to a high number of citations. Citations records were entered into a database and each citation was analyzed based on where it was published (e.g., a PhD thesis or a paper published in a scientific or policy journal). Second, website analytics were used to document both the number of file downloads and the number of webpage views of the Gulfwatch pages on the Gulf of Maine Council website. Finally, interviews of past and present Nova Scotian members of the Gulfwatch committee and of government and industry staff (also in Nova Scotia) were completed to determine the levels of awareness and use of Gulfwatch information products in in the province.

Results and DiscussionOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gulfwatch Output Analysis

Through this research 161 records of Gulfwatch products were discovered. Of these, 132 are complete records (date, authors, location of presentation, etc.). The most productive years of communication and outreach were between1991 and 2005. After 2005, a decline in output occurred. Conference presentations to the GOMC itself were the most common form of communication output of the program.

As of October 2014, 123 complete citations were made to the 2001 Chase et al. paper. All but six of the citing works were published in science journals. Five citations (all scientific in nature) were by theses completed at various universities and one citation was by a paper published in a management journal.

The analysis of Gulfwatch outputs indicates a steady stream by the Gulfwatch committee, but funding restrictions have had an impact on output frequency, particularly after 2005 when the frequency decreases. Usage of the 2001 Chase et al. paper indicates that it, and possibly other Gulfwatch outputs, are mostly used by scientific researchers, rather than policy- or decision-makers. Choosing the 2001 Chase et al. paper was an example of citation analysis, and further analysis into how other Gulfwatch publications are cited may yield other results.

Webpage Analysis

Indications of use were found in the case of both webpage views and file downloads. In some years under analysis, more than 5000 file downloads or 10 000 webpage views occurred. Raw metals data were the most common types of files and webpages accessed. Users also accessed fact sheets, information on sampling site locations, and general Gulfwatch information. A convincing increase or trend in usage from year to year was not evident (file downloads did show a statistically significant increase during the years 2009-2011, based on three data points), but a notable increase in webpage views occurred in 2010. It is hypothesized that this increased interest in the Gulfwatch program is associated with concern for water quality and shellfish health after the BP oil-rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. A lower number of page views occurred in the year following, but downloads in 2011 are still higher than average for the other years analyzed.

The website analytics data provided insight into patters of use. It is clear that the webpage was accessed by many individuals. The fact that the raw data files are the most frequently accessed form of information indicates that individuals are interested in the results of the program, not simply that the program exists. It was not possible to determine how many unique users access the site or their affiliation (e.g., to government, industry, the public, or universities); however, use is certainly demonstrated.

Interview Analysis

Fourteen people were interviewed for this study, the majority of whom were staff members of either federal or provincial departments with some interest in water quality or contamination in sea-foods. The other participants were selected from the seafood industry. Some of the government participants were also members of the Gulfwatch Committee.

A few participants were aware of the Gulfwatch program and could identify potential applications of the data, but generally speaking, very limited indication of use of Gulfwatch information products outside of the GOMC and individuals or groups closely associated with the GOMC was found. None of the interviewees representing the seafood industry were aware of the program. Uses that were identified included: informing the State of the Gulf of Maine Report, contributing to the Ecosystem Indicator Partnership (another committee of the GOMC), and helping to inform the Environmental Ocean Health Index developed by the Bay of Fundy Ecosystem Partnership (BoFEP).

The interviewees suggested many potential uses for Gulfwatch information products. Notably, all three industry participants mentioned that having knowledge of chemical contamination could help to inform fishing practices as well as to help them to communicate with foreign markets about the levels of contamination in their products. However, industry participants also noted that the federal government departments were responsible for being aware of this information and for disseminating it to the fishing industry.

Other highlights of the interview data are that use of Gulfwatch information products is expected (i.e., participants assumed that the information has intrinsic value and that it must be used somewhere), even though limited indication of actual use is evident. Furthermore, the participants indicated several barriers and enablers to use of this information. The biggest and most obvious barrier is apparently very little federal or provincial mandate to monitor chemical contamination in waterways. It seems that any chemical contamination in sea products extracted from the Gulf of Maine/Bay of Fundy is monitored by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), but no person contacted from CFIA noted awareness of Gulfwatch. This apparent gap in jurisdictional responsibility and use of a valuable and freely available set of data about chemical contamination is a textbook case of jurisdictional gaps in Canadian governance with implications for public health and the fishing industry.

The interview data illustrate that while there is some awareness and little known use, the potential for use of Gulfwatch information products in Nova Scotia is considerable. Barriers need to be overcome and pathways to communicating findings and data need to be utilized more effectively to improve awareness, use, and eventually influence of Gulfwatch information products.


Several recommendations arise from this study:

  1. GOMC should communicate the relevance of the Gulfwatch program to potential users and explain how individuals may make use of Gulfwatch products to further program goals.
  2. The program must be adaptable. As new monitoring techniques become available, Gulfwatch should consider modernizing or retroactively analyzing samples for different contaminants. The committee should also be cognizant of the information needs of potential users if it wishes for the data and information products to be used outside of the GOMC (which is advisable to help secure funding from external sources).
  3. Creative communication is likely to aid in increasing awareness and subsequent use. For example, approaching universities with the data and outlining the potential for student research projects to be carried out using the data could increase awareness of the monitoring program overall.
  4. Targeting potential users is emphasized. Many groups, industries, government departments or other entities could make use of Gulfwatch information. However, if they are not aware of it or how it could be incorporated into their work, use will not occur. Taking an active role in raising awareness will be necessary, especially in an age when information overload often prevents people from looking for more information.
  5. The capacity of the program must be established and maintained. Gulfwatch, for instance, has many unpaid volunteers who may not have the incentive to participate in the program over the long-term. The unpaid status of many of team members also makes recruiting new members a challenge. This limited capacity, therefore, has an impact on the program’s performance, especially from an outreach perspective. An established program of sustainable capacity will include paid staff members, a recruitment strategy to gain new and lasting membership, and at least one individual (depending on the size of the program) committed to outreach and public relations to improve the awareness of the program.


Author: Sarah Chamberlain

Photo Credit: Peter Wells


This post is a summary of a Master of Marine Management research project report completed in December 2014. The full report is available at this link


The full citation for the Chase et al. (2001) paper referenced in this document is:

Chase, M. E., Jones, S. H., Hennigar, P., Sowles, J., Harding, G. C. H., Freeman, K., … & Taylor, D. (2001). Gulfwatch: Monitoring spatial and temporal patterns of trace metal and organic contaminants in the Gulf of Maine (1991–1997) with the blue mussel, Mytilus edulis L. Marine Pollution Bulletin42(6), 490-504.

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