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  1. To better understand the decline of one of earth’s most biodiverse habitats, coral reefs, many survey programs employ regular photographs of the benthos. An emerging challenge is the time required to annotate the large volume of digital imagery generated by these surveys. Here, we leverage existing machine-learning tools (CoralNet) and develop new fit-to-purpose programs to process and score benthic photoquadrats using five years of data from the Smithsonian MarineGEO Network’s biodiversity monitoring program at Carrie Bow Cay, Belize. Our analysis shows that scleractinian coral cover on forereef sites (at depths of 3–10 m) along our surveyed transects increased significantly from 6 to 13% during this period. More modest changes in macroalgae, turf algae, and sponge cover were also observed. Community-wide analysis confirmed a significant shift in benthic structure, and follow-up in situ surveys of coral demographics in 2019 revealed that the emerging coral communities are dominated by fast-recruiting and growing coral species belonging to the genera Agaricia and Porites. While the positive trajectory reported here is promising, Belizean reefs face persistent challenges related to overfishing and climate change. Open-source computational toolkits offer promise for increasing the efficiency of reef monitoring, and therefore our ability to assess the future of coralmore »reefs in the face of rapid environmental change.« less
  2. Unoccupied Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drone technologies, with their high spatial resolution, temporal flexibility, and ability to repeat photogrammetry, afford a significant advancement in other remote sensing approaches for coastal mapping, habitat monitoring, and environmental management. However, geographical drone mapping and in situ fieldwork often come with a steep learning curve requiring a background in drone operations, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing and related analytical techniques. Such a learning curve can be an obstacle for field implementation for researchers, community organizations and citizen scientists wishing to include introductory drone operations into their work. In this study, we develop a comprehensive drone training program for research partners and community members to use cost-effective, consumer-quality drones to engage in introductory drone mapping of coastal seagrass monitoring sites along the west coast of North America. As a first step toward a longer-term Public Participation GIS process in the study area, the training program includes lessons for beginner drone users related to flying drones, autonomous route planning and mapping, field safety, GIS analysis, image correction and processing, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification and regulations. Training our research partners and students, who are in most cases novice users, is the first step inmore »a larger process to increase participation in a broader project for seagrass monitoring in our case study. While our training program originated in the United States, we discuss our experiences for research partners and communities around the globe to become more confident in introductory drone operations for basic science. In particular, our work targets novice users without a strong background in geographic research or remote sensing. Such training provides technical guidance on the implementation of a drone mapping program for coastal research, and synthesizes our approaches to provide broad guidance for using drones in support of a developing Public Participation GIS process.« less