ESR prepress abstract  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00855

Should observers walk or fly to monitor trends in sea turtle populations?

Melissa L Warden, Heather L Haas, Paul M Richards, Kenneth A Rose, Joshua M Hatch*

*Email: joshua.hatch@noaa.gov

ABSTRACT: Monitoring animal populations is essential to conservation, and complex monitoring goals require complex resources. Variable detection probabilities can create uncertainty in trend and abundance estimated from point count surveys (e.g. nest counts), as well as for more expensive monitoring methods such as line transect surveys (e.g. aerial surveys). Point count surveys in the form of nest counts are the most common form of sea turtle population monitoring, although in-water aerial surveys are also conducted. We use a loggerhead sea turtle Caretta caretta population model to generate stochastic ‘known’ populations from which we mimic the information we would obtain from nest counts and in-water aerial surveys. We subject the populations to environmental or anthropogenic impacts and compare trends in each monitoring metric with the trend in simulated turtle population size in terms of adult equivalents. Over long time frames, either monitoring scheme performed equally well (mean population growth rates  QUOTE   over 50 years were within 1% of the growth rate estimated from simulated adult equivalents). Over shorter time frames, total adult females estimated from simulated nest counts generally tracked closer to adult equivalents than did abundance estimated from simulated aerial surveys; and  QUOTE   for the nest count metric generally had a lower median absolute relative error. Aerial surveys added value if population impacts affected young turtles (which can take 20-30 years to become nesters) or if impacts changed the population structure (e.g. changed the stable age distribution). For effective monitoring over short time frames, both monitoring schemes might be warranted.