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ESR 38:101-113 (2019)  -  DOI:

What we see is not what there is: estimating North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis local abundance

Laura C. Ganley1,2,*, Solange Brault1, Charles A. Mayo2

1Biology Department, University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA 02125, USA
2Right Whale Ecology Program, Center for Coastal Studies, Provincetown, MA 02657, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Aerial surveys can be used to estimate animal abundance, but animals unavailable for detection for portions of the survey can cause biased abundance estimates. Moreover, these biases may be variable owing to changes in behavior. We conducted focal follows to obtain surface and dive times of North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis in Cape Cod Bay (CCB) and measured the aircraft field of view; these metrics were combined to estimate availability and correct monthly abundance estimates from 1998 to 2017 generated via distance sampling methodology. We used a general least squares model to test for trends in abundance. Availability varied with month (0.27-0.85), likely linked to changes in the depth of copepod food resources. Detection probability varied across the years (0.43-0.87). Sightings per unit effort and counts of whales were significant, but downward-biased indicators of abundance and availability caused changes in bias over the season. Estimated abundance in CCB increased during the study period (4.9 whales yr-1), and estimated abundance in peak months increased at a faster rate (10% yr-1 for 1998-2017) than for the overall population (2.8% yr-1 for 1990-2010). Accurate abundance estimates are necessary to monitor long-term changes in abundance of right whales in CCB, to understand the importance of CCB relative to other areas, and improve management strategies to protect this endangered species from entanglements in fishing gear and ship-strikes. Failing to correct for seasonal variation in availability results in substantial and variable underestimation of abundance.

KEY WORDS: Abundance estimation · Availability bias · Bayesian · Distance sampling · g(0) · Right whales · Transect sampling · Diving

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Cite this article as: Ganley LC, Brault S, Mayo CA (2019) What we see is not what there is: estimating North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis local abundance. Endang Species Res 38:101-113.

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