Steller sea lion spatial-use patterns derived from a Bayesian model of opportunistic observations




Despite acquisition of a substantial catalog of telemetry data from Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) over the past two decades, scientists still lack comprehensive regionally explicit knowledge about Steller sea lion habitat use. The Platforms of Opportunity data contain records of Steller sea lion sightings throughout the species’ entire range and have potential to fill gaps in knowledge about their spatial use; however, the data have not previously been used because effort (e.g., time spent surveying or area sampled) was not recorded when sightings were obtained. For this study a novel approach was used to overcome the lack of effort data through development of an effort index and a Bayesian negative binomial model. The model quantified Steller sea lion encounter rates and associated uncertainty within 15 × 15 km2 grid cells across the species’ entire range. Year-round, as well as breeding and nonbreeding season encounter rates were estimated. The results of this analysis identify several previously undocumented areas of high use by Steller sea lions, indicate that only 37% of Steller sea lion high-use areas fall within designated critical habitat, and demonstrate that use of depth and distance from shore as indicators of Steller sea lion habitat is contraindicated.