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Citizen Science Spotlight: In it for the Long Haul

November 22, 2023

Longtime citizen scientists share why they first got involved with NOAA Fisheries programs and why they’ve continued volunteering over months, years, and even decades.

Photos of three people appear side by side - a woman holding a bright red-orange fish, a man with glasses, and a man on a boat. The header of the photo reads "Citizen Science Spotlight." Photos courtesy of Marcy Dorflinger (left), Steve Leong (center), and Mark Sampson (right).

We have lots of opportunities for members of the public to get involved in our research. We’re sharing the experiences of three longtime citizen scientists working with our programs. We hope you’ll be inspired by their stories to get involved in citizen science in your community, too! From the Cooperative Shark Tagging Program to OceanEYEs, there’s truly a project for everyone.

Mark Sampson

Citizen Science Program

Cooperative Shark Tagging Program


Charter Captain

A man with sunglasses and a baseball hat stands in the wheelhouse of a small boat.
Mark Sampson prepares to depart on a shark trip out of Ocean City, Maryland, from the wheelhouse of his charter boat, Fish Finder. Photo courtesy of Mark Sampson.

Mark Sampson is a man who wears many hats: captain, guide, recreational fisherman. But one of his favorites is citizen scientist. Sampson has been a charter captain with Fish Finder Adventures for decades in Ocean City, Maryland, where he works as a fishing guide. He initially heard about the Cooperative Shark Tagging Program from a friend and decided to get involved during the late 1970s. Sampson’s familiarity with local marine life made him a great fit for the program, and he’s been volunteering ever since.

The Cooperative Shark Tagging Program is a collaborative effort between recreational anglers, the commercial fishing industry, and NOAA Fisheries. Founded in 1962, it is one of the oldest citizen science programs in the nation. Volunteers tag sharks caught during recreational or commercial fishing activities and release them. The tags provide shark researchers with information about the sharks’ movements and migration patterns, growth rates, abundance, and more. 

“When I first started volunteering, I immediately felt the satisfaction of releasing a shark we caught and putting a tag on it. When you tag a shark, you know the story might not end there after it’s been released, even if you don’t hear anything until years down the road,” Sampson says. In fact, he’s had a number of sharks he’s tagged pop back up years later. Two blue sharks he tagged off Ocean City were eventually recaptured—all the way across the ocean in the Azores archipelago and off the coast of Spain!

A man tags a shark in the water below from a boat.
Sampson tags a sandbar shark. Photo courtesy of Mark Sampson.

“We also have other biologists contribute to the program and incorporate tagging data from multiple surveys, but our citizen scientists, especially our dedicated volunteers like Mark, are the backbone of our program,” says Cami McCandless, the research fisheries biologist who leads the Cooperative Shark Tagging Program. “A citizen science-based tagging program provides an excellent platform for obtaining shark movement data. Conventional tags last for decades and are quite inexpensive in comparison to high-technology tags that give detailed movement data. Sharks are highly migratory, covering vast distances. Our research team can’t be everywhere all the time, so having volunteers deploying tags each season throughout the North Atlantic vastly expands what we can do on our own.” 

Sampson and McCandless encourage anyone with an interest in sharks to get involved with the Cooperative Shark Tagging Program—you don’t need to be a charter captain or even a volunteer tagger to contribute! If you are fishing and you catch a tagged shark, report it to the program by email (sharkrecap@noaa.gov), toll-free call (877-826-2612), or fill out a form online

“The people with the program are extremely knowledgeable and helpful,” Sampson says. “I’ve been so appreciative of the tagging program for all these years. It’s a great opportunity to communicate back and forth with scientists and help with real research.”

Marcy Dorflinger

Citizen Science Program

California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program


Volunteer Angler

A woman holds up a bright red-orange fish on the deck of a boat.
Marcy Dorflinger holds a vermilion rockfish while fishing. Photo courtesy of Marcy Dorflinger.

“I’ve been fishing pretty much my whole life,” says Marcy Dorflinger. “I’ve always loved it. When I was little I would go out on the lakes with my dad and my uncles.” Dorflinger now brings her lifetime of fishing expertise to the California Collaborative Fisheries Research Program, where she’s been a volunteer angler for 15 years. A neighbor originally introduced the program to Dorflinger, who saw it as a great opportunity to get out on the water more. But after more than a decade with the program, it’s become so much more to her.

The research program is a collaboration between scientists and recreational anglers collecting data to evaluate and monitor the effectiveness of California’s network of marine protected areas. These data points also feed into our stock assessments, helping scientists to estimate the health and size of fish populations in the area.

Dorflinger has loved gaining a more intimate understanding of how these offshore protected areas are affecting populations of local groundfish species. “As part of the program, we compare [data from] the marine protected areas with [data from] the reference areas where everyone can fish,” Dorflinger says. “It’s been really interesting to see that the areas are doing their job. There are more fish and bigger fish in those protected areas.”

Erin Johnston, the Interim Statewide Coordinator for the program, says that Dorflinger has been an invaluable member of the team. “There are an endless number of positive things that I could say about Marcy Dorflinger…Her frequent involvement as a volunteer means that Marcy has contributed to this program in a really impactful way,” Johnston says. “Marcy began volunteering with the program in 2008 and has not missed a single year since then. She has volunteered on more than 140 trips and caught almost 4,000 fish in her time as a volunteer angler. She is famous for catching fish even if no one else on board is catching anything. Most importantly, Marcy contributes to this program through more than her fishing ability; she brings her positive energy to every fishing day and is a constant source of joy on long sampling trips. She also comes to our outreach events and supports our undergraduate and graduate staff through her fishing experience, probing questions, and positive feedback. She is an inspiration to women fishers everywhere!”

Steve Leong

Citizen Science Program



Stock Assessment Data Program Analyst

A man with black hair and glasses stands on a beach with the ocean behind him.
Steve Leong snorkeling at Maluaka Beach in Maui, Hawai‘i. Photo courtesy of Steve Leong.

Steve Leong’s knack for identifying fish is practically in his blood. Growing up in Sacramento, California, Leong spent countless hours at his grandparents’ fish market. He was fascinated by all the different species represented there—an enduring interest that has propelled him to a long-term involvement in the OceanEYEs project.

“I really love going to Hawai‘i and snorkeling, but I obviously couldn’t go there during the pandemic,” Leong says. In November 2020, he began seeking out opportunities to support public science research programs in his free time. He happened upon OceanEYEs, a virtual citizen science program that improves the data used to manage the Hawaiian “Deep 7” bottomfish species

The Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center uses underwater stereo camera systems to record images of these culturally and economically valuable species. Then OceanEYEs volunteers annotate these images to identify fish, record data, and help to train machine learning algorithms, expediting the data collection process for professional researchers. “It was sort of like a virtual vacation,” Leong says. “It was a way to see fish you wouldn’t normally see at the surface.”

Leong loves that volunteering with the program puts him at the forefront of emerging fisheries management strategies and technologies. As a retired cancer research and drug development scientist, he has worked with large datasets and understands how much more time-effective it can be to use AI for data analysis. “This has been a way of contributing to the development of AI for the program, which could help with other research projects that will use AI. Using these underwater cameras that can process huge amounts of data takes this research to the next level. It tells me that NOAA is really modernizing,” Leong says.

"Steve Leong has been a valuable asset to the OceanEYEs project since it began 3 years ago,” says Audrey Rollo, lead analyst for the Science Operations Division at the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and moderator for OceanEYEs. “Not only has Steve consistently participated in the project throughout the years, but he has shown interest in the research behind the citizen science workflow. I can always count on Steve to provide accurate results and have appreciated his commitment, passion, and enthusiasm to the OceanEYEs project. Mahalo to Steve for his dedicated service!"