Monitoring cetacean occurrence in coastal waters of the Caribbean Netherlands (Saba, St. Eustatius & Bonaire) using port sampling

Knowledge on the density, distribution and occurrence of whales and dolphins in the Caribbean Netherlands is sparse. This knowledge is needed as basic input for conservation and management of cetaceans in the area. Especially in the long term, dedicated data is needed to provide a base-line for monitoring the effect of policy decisions, such as a proposed implementation of a whale sanctuary.

Until recently, knowledge was mainly based on strandings and opportunistic sightings of whales and dolphins. Dedicated data collection, such as obtained from designed aerial or shipboard surveys, will provide reliable and unbiased estimates of abundances and describe distribution patterns and habitat use. However, these types of studies are costly. To explore options on how to bridge the gap between costs (high-low) and data quality (high-low), we investigated a method that could potentially provide long term and cost effective, albeit low quality (in certain aspects), data. In this report we present the results obtained using a port sampling programme used to monitor the fisheries of Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire.
During port sampling fishermen were interviewed after returning to the harbour from a fishing trip. The fishermen described their fishing activities and in addition they reported any sightings of whales or dolphins. The study on Saba has included the recording of cetacean sightings since July 2012, the same method has been applied in St. Eustatius since November 2012 and on Bonaire since January 2014. In total 59 different fishing vessels participated in the study (9 Saba, 15 St. Eustatius and 35 Bonaire). The waters around each island were divided into sub-areas to provide data on where the fishing effort took place and where sightings were made. Effort was described as "fishing trips" per sub-area, per month and per island. A total of 1428 days at sea were monitored, with 1020 from Saba, 292 from St. Eustatius and 116 from Bonaire.
During the study a total of 42 whale sightings of 71 individuals was made, of these 36 (62 animals) were recorded in Saba, 2 (2 animals) in St. Eustatius and 4 (4 animals) in Bonaire. There were 93 dolphin sightings consisting of 1362 individual animals. Of these, from Saba there were 71 sightings (877 animals), from St Eustatius 3 sightings (144 animals) and from Bonaire 19 sightings (341 animals).
The relative density (sightings per "fishing trip") showed a pronounced difference in occurrence of cetaceans between islands. The highest relative density of dolphins was found in Bonaire with 0.16 dolphin sightings/fishing trip. The highest relative density of whales was found in Saba with 0.04 whales/fishing trip. Occurrence of whales and dolphins indicated seasonal patterns, in particular for Saba waters where the monitoring ran for several years and most whale and dolphin sightings were in March. The spatial distribution in the Saba study area indicated that dolphins occur regularly on the Saba Bank. In Bonaire the data indicated that an area on the west side of the island and close to shore (<1 km) with high fishing effort also had a high occurrence of cetacean sightings.
An evaluation of the method used indicated that the sampling methodology could be adapted to improve data quality. Most important hereby is a standardization of data collection and data storage between the islands. It also showed that the information provided by the fishermen is very useful in identifying areas of research needed to further investigate cetacean distributional patterns and habitat use around these three islands.
This research was performed within EZ-program Beleidsondersteunend Onderzoek (BO). BO-11-011.05- 034, BO-11-011-05-008. 


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