Pinniped diet composition: a comparison of estimation models


Laake, Jeffrey L., Patience Browne, Robert L. DeLong, and Harriet R. Huber
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Along the west coast of the United States, the potential impact of increasing pinniped populations on declining salmonid (Oncorhynchus spp.) stocks has become an issue of concern. Fisheries managers need species-specific estimates of consumption by pinnipeds to evaluate their impact on salmonid stocks. To estimate consumption, we developed a model that estimates diet composition by reconstructing prey biomass from fecal samples. We applied the model to data collected from harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) that are present year-round in the lower Columbia River where endangered stocks of salmonids pass as returning adults and as seaward-migrating smolts. Using the same data, we applied the split-sample frequency of occurrence model, which avoids reconstructing biomass by assuming that each fecal sample represents an equal volume of consumption and that within each sample each prey item represents an equal proportion of the volume. The two models for estimating diet composition yielded size-specific differences in consumption estimates that were as large as tenfold for the smallest and largest prey. Conclusions about the impact of harbor seal predation on adult salmonids, some of their largest prey species, remain uncertain without some appropriate rationale or further information (e.g. empirical captive studies) to discriminate between these models.