I think that this is only the beginning of us using this type of application to reach people. I can imagine that more dynamic content like this site built with Experience Builder site is going to receive a lot more visitation and longer exploration of our web content.
National Marine Sanctuary Delivers Virtual Online Program for Fishing Best Practices, Reef Education with Immersive Experience
The Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, an amazing underwater park off Georgia's coast, is one of the largest nearshore live-bottom reefs in the southeastern United States. The sanctuary, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, is composed of rocky ledges, undercuts, and sand patches that provide habitat for an array of ocean animals. Thousands of species of invertebrates (animals without backbones), marine mammals, and fish live at Gray's Reef. Fishing and diving are permitted in the sanctuary, giving anglers the chance to catch black sea bass, mackerel, snappers, and groupers.
To conserve the vast resources of Gray's Reef, there is an entire team above the water conducting scientific research and monitoring, providing education, and performing outreach to locals and visitors alike. The group began an initiative in 2019 to connect with fishers and provide education on the reef and fishing best practices through learning exchanges, or in-person educational workshops. The project became possible with funding from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, which the environmental organization The Nature Conservancy (TNC) applied for and received.
The learning exchanges had to shift from in-person to virtual education due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the Gray's Reef team aimed to create an online platform. The team partnered with Dewberry, an Esri partner and a nationwide firm of planning, design, construction, and geospatial professionals, to develop an online solution, which has improved communication efforts with the fishing community and collaboration among partners.
In addition to TNC, Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary partnered with several other groups to launch this project, including the University of Georgia's Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, FishSmart, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The learning exchanges, held along the Georgia coast, intended to find out from community members what they would like to learn as well as arm them with vital information and general education about the sanctuary.
To continue the in-person learning exchanges when such gatherings had to cease in 2020, the group decided to create an online product, accessible anytime, to live on the Gray's Reef website.
"We wanted to make it to where it would still be as interactive and dynamic of an experience as we could but be safe. And the idea of this living on the website for years to come instead of being a stagnant, workshop-based project seemed appetizing for people," explains Robert Crimian, southeast ocean conservation specialist for The Nature Conservancy.
Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Resume learning exchanges while making it more broadly accessible using the Gray's Reef website.
ArcGIS Experience Builder
ArcGIS Experience Builder satisfied the need for accessible content and since launching, the new web app has climbed into the top 10 on the sanctuary's website.
According to Stan Rogers, superintendent at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, this important initiative fulfills the sanctuary's mission by not just explaining fishing regulations but also connecting with people, providing education and best practices, and improving the understanding of critical issues at the sanctuary.
"Gray's Reef is a national marine sanctuary. It is in federal waters. It belongs to all US residents. It's yours; it's mine; it's ours," says Rogers. "And so it's our obligation to communicate these things to the people at large, not just specific user groups or people who live on the coast."
The critical issues include combating barotrauma to deepwater fish like snappers and groupers. Barotrauma describes the injuries a fish may receive from rapid changes in atmospheric pressures; for example, when a fish is caught by anglers, a rapid pressure change may occur when it is reeled in from deep water to the surface. Other best practices include learning the best hooks to use to catch fish or the ideal deck time for a fish to be out of water.
"Gray's Reef has been an ideal fishing destination for 40 years. And it's because of past generations conserving the fish [and] the habitat there that our children and grandchildren can, hopefully, fish at the levels that they did in the past," says Ben Prueitt, outreach and social media coordinator at Gray's Reef.
Gray's Reef team members wanted the online site to be eye-catching, interactive, and dynamic and enlisted outside help to bring their vision to fruition. Crimian says he researched companies online and found the multifaceted firm Dewberry and thought its services and skills would help the team create this virtual experience.
Crimian says the partners had several essentials for the new site, including the ability for participants to move at their own pace and click to receive more information on a specific topic. The groups also wanted to give a view of Gray's Reef underneath the surface because some visitors may be new to offshore fishing. Prueitt says fishers may not see the incredible resources in the reef and know what is being protected by the rules and regulations.
In addition, Prueitt says previous site analytics revealed a large number of mobile phone users accessing the current website, so having a responsive design and a mobile-optimized site was a necessity.
To begin work on the interactive site, Siddharth Pandey, geospatial technology manager with Dewberry, began searching for the technology best suited to incorporate multimedia elements. The initial software considered, a story authoring application, was not as customizable as Pandey wanted, so he ultimately selected ArcGIS Experience Builder, which would allow the "experience" to be all in one space. ArcGIS Experience Builder helps users build mapcentric (or nonmapcentric) applications without extensive coding.
Pandey says the groups began by discussing the desired user experience and developing an outline of what the project partners would like to showcase and provide information on, considering things like what a person would need to know before getting to the reef and any important regulations. Pandey said he read some documentation to learn how to use the tool but mostly did a lot of trial and error to get the look and experience right.
"I'd say it was fun [using Experience Builder]. There's a fairly steep learning curve, but . . . I think once you get past that, then it's really easy to use," says Pandey.
Pandey says there was also a significant focus on making the site accessible and simple to use, including pop-ups with additional information. Alternate text was also added to images for individuals using assistive devices. The new application is hosted on NOAA's GeoPlatform, but Gray's Reef team members have direct access to it and the ability to edit and adjust their fishing experience based on user feedback.
"It was really about making it as immersive as it is easy to use. You can look at different buttons and get a sense of exactly what you're going to experience when you click on it and go to that site," says Pandey.
The final site includes several pages, beginning with the main page that includes an introductory video on the purpose of the site and why the information offered is important. Another section on preparing to go to Gray's Reef displays the habitats of the reef via a web map that tells a story using ArcGIS StoryMaps. It also includes videos of some of the animals that live on the reef like a loggerhead turtle. Another section details the regulations of the sanctuary and of the reef's research area.
A section on planning ahead provides information on preparing for a visit to Gray's Reef, including weather, the best gear to bring, and tips on how to safely release a fish caught in deep water. The final section explains some initiatives focused on citizen science such as how the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council gathers information to improve regulations and help fishers enjoy fishing on a larger scale.
The new Gray's Reef best fishing practices experience launched in November 2021, and the results have been outstanding. The page became one of the top 10 experiences on the sanctuary's website, and it was the one that visitors spent the most time on. Crimian says anglers are enjoying the new site and were major contributors to the content, which they see reflected in the experience. The site has allowed the Gray's Reef team to reach a larger portion of recreational fishers, says Elliott Lam, state program manager at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.
"When we go out to talk with local fishermen, we end up talking with the ones that are living at the coast where we are but not necessarily encompassing all the ones that travel down or have vacation homes from other parts of the state or the region," says Lam. "So by having access to this year-round at their convenience, they get to have the same content of a new fisher orientation as they would get from one of our in-person meetings."
The visual components of the experience are exciting for Rogers, who believes the team can reach more people with multimedia elements. Though the Gray's Reef team had to shift from in-person events, he says the website is a great alternative to enhancing engagement with the public. The multimedia aspects include 360-degree videos of the reef, slideshows, and maps.
"It's our obligation to make sure we are reaching a broad segment of society . . . and that we are speaking in a language that the general public understands. I think the adage 'a picture speaks a thousand words' is very true," says Rogers. "I think [that's] the strength in visual tools. Products like these are more engaging . . . so it's going to hit a broader community."
The ability to have the different sections housed in one site has improved information gathering from multiple sites. Prueitt says the partners on this project have their own websites with specific information, and Experience Builder helps to bring information from the sites together in one place. He adds that this makes it easier for users to digest content while also providing an interactive experience.
Pandey enjoyed the ability to customize the site and create a custom template with Experience Builder. He notes that once the template was set up and customized, it allowed users to build on top of it. Crimian adds that since the solution is plug and play, and customization is much simpler, Experience Builder is an economical choice because work can be given to staff without prior coding experience, and the hiring of specialists isn't needed.
"So should the team [members] decide they want to add pieces to it or construct something similar, it's a template. You just kind of continue to add more sections or buttons to modify things. So a lot of that work doesn't need to be redone, which is really nice," says Pandey.
The Gray's Reef team is looking forward to building more sites with Experience Builder for other recreational activities at the reef such as scuba diving. Rogers states that other sanctuaries are interested in building similar sites, and the team hopes for more opportunities to collaborate with other groups.
"That's where the strength is in [Experience Builder]. It's not coming from one voice. It's coming from a collection of information from various partners," says Rogers. "And that really builds trust and believability into these things when you see it coming from multiple sources like this."