Fishery Bulletin (2010)


Estimating the abundance of cetaceans from aerial survey data requires careful attention to survey design and analysis. Once an aerial observer perceives a marine mammal or group of marine mammals, he or she has only a few seconds to identify and enumerate the individuals sighted, as well as to determine the distance to the sighting and record this information. In line-transect survey analyses, it is assumed that the observer has correctly identified and enumerated the group or individual. We describe methods used to test this assumption and how survey data should be adjusted to account for observer errors. Harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) were censused during aerial surveys in the summer of 1997 in Southeast Alaska (9844 km survey effort), in the summer of 1998 in the Gulf of Alaska (10,127 km), and in the summer of 1999 in the Bering Sea (7849 km). Sightings of harbor porpoise during a beluga whale (Phocoena phocoena) survey in 1998 (1355 km) provided data on harbor porpoise abundance in Cook Inlet for the Gulf of Alaska stock. Sightings by primary observers at side windows were compared to an independent observer at a belly window to estimate the probability of misidentification, underestimation of group size, and the probability that porpoise on the surface at the trackline were missed (perception bias, g(0)). There were 129, 96, and 201 sightings of harbor porpoises in the three stock areas, respectively. Both g(0) and effective strip width (the realized width of the survey track) depended on survey year, and g(0) also depended on the visibility reported by observers. Harbor porpoise abundance in 1997–99 was estimated at 11,146 animals for the Southeast Alaska stock, 31,046 animals for the Gulf of Alaska stock, and 48,515 animals for the Bering Sea stock.