Spatial and Temporal Baseline Information on Marine Megafauna-Data Facilitated by a Wildlife Tour Operator
The protection of marine megafauna within Europe is rather fragmented. Developing conservation measures for highly mobile species presents definite challenges, particularly due to the many knowledge gaps. Recent studies have shown that these gaps can be filled in by Platforms of Opportunity (PO) which create low-cost approaches. However, the number of wildlife tour operators actively collecting PO data related to distribution and relative abundance of marine fauna remains limited. In this study, we investigated whether effort-corrected data on marine megafauna facilitated by a wildlife tour operator afforded robust long temporal data (2011-2015). Sightings data, collected in the wider Mount’s Bay area (southwest Cornwall, UK), along with a GPS application, were collected to accurately record survey effort. In addition, radial sighting distances and detection curves were computed to explore the robustness of the data. Density maps of marine megafauna indicated that encounters occurred throughout the area in all three seasons but the temporal distribution was significantly different with numbers peaking in autumn. Odontocetes were mostly recorded during autumn, basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and ocean sunfish (Mola mola) were more abundant during summer and leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) were recorded occasionally. Our data showed that this shallow coastal environment is particularly important as a nursing area for harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena). Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) showed a high semi-residency pattern for adults with calves within one core-habitat. As such, the study provides important spatial and temporal baseline data that are essential for the protection of marine megafauna through the development of an ecological network of marine protected areas within UK waters. Although, data facilitated by wildlife operators have certain shortcomings we highlight that the protocols developed here secured efficient and precise data. Such collection protocols can be implemented on a larger scale, ultimately enhancing research monitoring efforts and marine ecosystem management.