Using tagging data and aerial surveys to incorporate availability bias in the abundance estimation of blue sharks

Published on 11. September 2018

Using tagging data and aerial surveys to incorporate availability bias in the abundance estimation of blue sharks (Prionace glauca)

Milaja Nykänen , Mark Jessopp, Thomas K. Doyle, Luke A. Harman, Ana Cañadas, Patricia Breen, William Hunt, Mick Mackey, Oliver Ó Cadhla, David Reid, Emer Rogan


There is worldwide concern about the status of elasmobranchs, primarily as a result of overfishing and bycatch with subsequent ecosystem effects following the removal of top predators. Whilst abundant and wide-ranging, blue sharks (Prionace glauca) are the most heavily exploited shark species having suffered marked declines over the past decades, and there is a call for robust abundance estimates. In this study, we utilized depth data collected from two blue sharks using pop-up satellite archival tags, and modelled the proportion of time the sharks were swimming in the top 1-meter layer and could therefore be detected by observers conducting aerial surveys. The availability models indicated that the tagged sharks preferred surface waters whilst swimming over the continental shelf and during daytime, with a model-predicted average proportion of time spent at the surface of 0.633 (SD = 0.094) for on-shelf, and 0.136 (SD = 0.075) for off-shelf. These predicted values were then used to account for availability bias in abundance estimates for the species over a large area in the Northeast Atlantic, derived through distance sampling using aerial survey data collected in 2015 and 2016 and modelled with density surface models. Further, we compared abundance estimates corrected with model-predicted availability to uncorrected estimates and to estimates that incorporated the average time the sharks were available for detection. The mean abundance (number of individuals) corrected with modelled availability was 15,320 (CV = 0.28) in 2015 and 11,001 (CV = 0.27) in 2016. Depending on the year, these estimates were ~7 times higher compared to estimates without the bias correction, and ~3 times higher compared to the abundances corrected with average availability. When the survey area contains habitat heterogeneity that may affect surfacing patterns of animals, modelling animals’ availability provides a robust alternative to correcting for availability bias and highlights the need for caution when applying “average” correction factors.

PLoS ONE 13(9): e0203122. DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0203122



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