Data to Decision in a Dynamic Ocean: Robust Species Distribution Models and Spatial Decision Frameworks

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Best, Benjamin Dale


Halpin, Patrick N

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Human use of the oceans is increasingly in conflict with conservation of endangered species. Methods for managing the spatial and temporal placement of industries such as military, fishing, transportation and offshore energy, have historically been post hoc; i.e. the time and place of human activity is often already determined before assessment of environmental impacts. In this dissertation, I build robust species distribution models in two case study areas, US Atlantic (Best et al. 2012) and British Columbia (Best et al. 2015), predicting presence and abundance respectively, from scientific surveys. These models are then applied to novel decision frameworks for preemptively suggesting optimal placement of human activities in space and time to minimize ecological impacts: siting for offshore wind energy development, and routing ships to minimize risk of striking whales. Both decision frameworks relate the tradeoff between conservation risk and industry profit with synchronized variable and map views as online spatial decision support systems.

For siting offshore wind energy development (OWED) in the U.S. Atlantic (chapter 4), bird density maps are combined across species with weights of OWED sensitivity to collision and displacement and 10 km2 sites are compared against OWED profitability based on average annual wind speed at 90m hub heights and distance to transmission grid. A spatial decision support system enables toggling between the map and tradeoff plot views by site. A selected site can be inspected for sensitivity to a cetaceans throughout the year, so as to capture months of the year which minimize episodic impacts of pre-operational activities such as seismic airgun surveying and pile driving.

Routing ships to avoid whale strikes (chapter 5) can be similarly viewed as a tradeoff, but is a different problem spatially. A cumulative cost surface is generated from density surface maps and conservation status of cetaceans, before applying as a resistance surface to calculate least-cost routes between start and end locations, i.e. ports and entrance locations to study areas. Varying a multiplier to the cost surface enables calculation of multiple routes with different costs to conservation of cetaceans versus cost to transportation industry, measured as distance. Similar to the siting chapter, a spatial decisions support system enables toggling between the map and tradeoff plot view of proposed routes. The user can also input arbitrary start and end locations to calculate the tradeoff on the fly.

Essential to the input of these decision frameworks are distributions of the species. The two preceding chapters comprise species distribution models from two case study areas, U.S. Atlantic (chapter 2) and British Columbia (chapter 3), predicting presence and density, respectively. Although density is preferred to estimate potential biological removal, per Marine Mammal Protection Act requirements in the U.S., all the necessary parameters, especially distance and angle of observation, are less readily available across publicly mined datasets.

In the case of predicting cetacean presence in the U.S. Atlantic (chapter 2), I extracted datasets from the online OBIS-SEAMAP geo-database, and integrated scientific surveys conducted by ship (n=36) and aircraft (n=16), weighting a Generalized Additive Model by minutes surveyed within space-time grid cells to harmonize effort between the two survey platforms. For each of 16 cetacean species guilds, I predicted the probability of occurrence from static environmental variables (water depth, distance to shore, distance to continental shelf break) and time-varying conditions (monthly sea-surface temperature). To generate maps of presence vs. absence, Receiver Operator Characteristic (ROC) curves were used to define the optimal threshold that minimizes false positive and false negative error rates. I integrated model outputs, including tables (species in guilds, input surveys) and plots (fit of environmental variables, ROC curve), into an online spatial decision support system, allowing for easy navigation of models by taxon, region, season, and data provider.

For predicting cetacean density within the inner waters of British Columbia (chapter 3), I calculated density from systematic, line-transect marine mammal surveys over multiple years and seasons (summer 2004, 2005, 2008, and spring/autumn 2007) conducted by Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Abundance estimates were calculated using two different methods: Conventional Distance Sampling (CDS) and Density Surface Modelling (DSM). CDS generates a single density estimate for each stratum, whereas DSM explicitly models spatial variation and offers potential for greater precision by incorporating environmental predictors. Although DSM yields a more relevant product for the purposes of marine spatial planning, CDS has proven to be useful in cases where there are fewer observations available for seasonal and inter-annual comparison, particularly for the scarcely observed elephant seal. Abundance estimates are provided on a stratum-specific basis. Steller sea lions and harbour seals are further differentiated by ‘hauled out’ and ‘in water’. This analysis updates previous estimates (Williams & Thomas 2007) by including additional years of effort, providing greater spatial precision with the DSM method over CDS, novel reporting for spring and autumn seasons (rather than summer alone), and providing new abundance estimates for Steller sea lion and northern elephant seal. In addition to providing a baseline of marine mammal abundance and distribution, against which future changes can be compared, this information offers the opportunity to assess the risks posed to marine mammals by existing and emerging threats, such as fisheries bycatch, ship strikes, and increased oil spill and ocean noise issues associated with increases of container ship and oil tanker traffic in British Columbia’s continental shelf waters.

Starting with marine animal observations at specific coordinates and times, I combine these data with environmental data, often satellite derived, to produce seascape predictions generalizable in space and time. These habitat-based models enable prediction of encounter rates and, in the case of density surface models, abundance that can then be applied to management scenarios. Specific human activities, OWED and shipping, are then compared within a tradeoff decision support framework, enabling interchangeable map and tradeoff plot views. These products make complex processes transparent for gaming conservation, industry and stakeholders towards optimal marine spatial management, fundamental to the tenets of marine spatial planning, ecosystem-based management and dynamic ocean management.





Best, Benjamin Dale (2016). Data to Decision in a Dynamic Ocean: Robust Species Distribution Models and Spatial Decision Frameworks. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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