BRICK, N.J. — A free smartphone app is letting people report oil spills, debris fields and even algae blooms and jellyfish swarms in waterways around the world.
The Marine Defenders app lets people instantly file reports that go to a central pollution database and can swiftly be routed to the Coast Guard or environmental prosecutors if warranted.
It was originally developed two years ago for the American Littoral Society, a New Jersey coastal conservation group, as a way for boaters to report oil spills. But it was updated this week to allow anyone who sees water pollution, floating debris, endangered animals or other environmental problems to report them.
"This tool is about empowering citizens to help us identify and report those problems," said Tim Dillingham, the group's executive director. "It's about putting eyes on the water and really expanding the public's ability to watch what's going on."
Available at the iTunes store, the app has been downloaded about 400 times so far, said Capt. Walt Nadolny of the SUNY Maritime Academy. All reports go to the academy and the American Littoral Society and can be forwarded to authorities.
It is one of several similar apps that let people report pollution to authorities.
Marine Defenders currently works only on iPhones. It asks users whether they are reporting a biological incident, oil spill or marine debris and prompts them to describe what they see and attach photos. The report is automatically tagged with GPS coordinates of the incident.
Had the app been available during the Gulf oil spill in 2010, each report would have constituted hard evidence that could have been used in assessing liability and calculating damages, as well as responding quickly to oiled birds, said Micah Fink, who produced the app.
While not endorsing the app, a Coast Guard spokesman said specific information is crucial to an effective response.
"The most important part of pollution response is knowing exactly where the scene is," Petty Officer Brandyn Hill said. "The quicker we can get personnel to the scene, the quicker we can start mitigating the problem and minimizing damage."
The app allows people to vastly expand a database of pollution incidents that can be examined for trends in a particular area.
The project is funded by a $325,000 federal grant with money obtained from fines levied on polluters. People reporting significant oil spills may receive up to half the fine assessed on polluters as a reward, Fink said.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC