The SNMREC is utilizing aerial surveys to estimate the abundance and distribution of turtles within the Florida Straits, specifically for the proposed SNMREC offshore test site area in southeast Florida. The purpose of this study is to obtain baseline data regarding sea turtle species found the waters of the northern Straits of Florida. The data and analysis will be used to identify possible areas of high-abundance vs. areas of low abundance that can be used in the future by the SNMREC and assist with determining the placement of the proposed ocean current turbine test berths and future commercial turbine arrays that limit interactions with and impact on protected marine turtles.
Aerial surveys are conducted following the transect line methodology presented by Buckland et al. 2001. Surveys are conducted once a month throughout the year using a high-wing aircraft (Cessna 337) since January 2011. Altitude is maintained at 150m with a ground speed of approximately 75-100 kn (Henwood and Epperly 1999). Transects are flown perpendicular to the coast (east-west) and encompass both near-shore and off-shore areas out from Ft. Lauderdale north to Jupiter, and across the Florida Straits to the Bahamas (see figure below, black lines represent transects that estimate the flight path during surveys and green dots represent some turtles identified during surveys in 2011). The survey missions are conducted in two parts, with a return to the departure airport for a brief rest.
In order to determine the abundance and distribution of sea turtles using distance sampling techniques, a minimum of 2 FAU personnel are needed. One observer is stationed on each side of the plane (in the back seats) and focus their efforts on observing sea turtles through the side windows of the plane. Conducting marine wildlife surveys is a specialized skill that requires knowledge of various species and their ecology within the marine environment. FAU personnel and/or students chosen to participate in the surveys have superior knowledge of these topics and will provide the expertise necessary to determine the abundance and distribution of turtles via aerial surveys. In addition, the SNMREC is dedicated to furthering the education and training of future wildlife biologist that will ultimately become experts in their respective fields with a strong understanding of marine renewable energy projects.
PRECEDENTS AND REFERENCES
Henwood and Epperly (1999) suggested that aerial surveys are most appropriate when very little is known about sea turtle distribution and abundance over a relatively large area. In addition, aerial surveys are the appropriate method for documenting seasonal or annual variations in abundance and distribution patterns (Henwood and Epperly 1999), which are likely to occur within our study site due to the area's proximity to nesting beaches and juvenile foraging habitats along the southeastern US.