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ESR prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr01298

Sea turtle density surface models along the United States Atlantic coast

A. DiMatteo*, J. J. Roberts, D. Jones, L. Garrison, K. M. Hart, R. D. Kenney, W. A. McLellan, K. Lomac-MacNair, D. Palka, M. E. Rickard, K. E. Roberts, A. M. Zoidis, L. Sparks

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Spatially explicit estimates of marine species distribution and abundance are required to quantify potential impacts from human activities such as military training and testing, fisheries interactions, and offshore energy development. There are 4 protected species of sea turtle (loggerhead, green, Kemp’s ridley, and leatherback) commonly found along the east coast of the USA, our study area, and which require impact assessments. Data from 7 different survey organizations were used to create density surface models for the 4 sea turtle species utilizing 1.2 million km of line-transect surveys. A substantial portion (29.7%) of available sightings were not identified to the species level. Not including these sightings would underestimate density, so a conditional random forest model was used to assign unidentified sightings to species. Higher densities of loggerhead, green, and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were predicted south of the Outer Banks in cool months, transitioning northwards in late spring to occupy seasonal neritic habitats. The highest leatherback densities were predicted off the coasts of Georgia and Florida. Leatherbacks were also predicted throughout offshore areas. The predicted distribution patterns generally matched satellite tracking and strandings data, indicating the models reproduced established seasonal movements. Surveys rarely detect sea turtles smaller than 40cm, so these age classes are not represented. The models are the first for the study area to apply availability bias estimates developed in or near the study area and attempt to classify unidentified sightings to the species level, providing an updated, critical tool for conservation management along the eastern seaboard.