Background: Increasingly, underwater visual censuses (UVC) are used to assess fish populations. Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of protected areas for increasing fish abundance or provided insight into the natural abundance and structure of reef fish communities in remote areas. Recently, high apex predator densities (>100,000 individuals x km(-2)) and biomasses (>4 tonnes x ha(-1)) have been reported for some remote islands suggesting the occurrence of inverted trophic biomass pyramids. However, few studies have critically evaluated the methods used for sampling conspicuous and highly mobile fish such as sharks. Ideally, UVC are done instantaneously, however, researchers often count animals that enter the survey area after the survey has started, thus performing non-instantaneous UVC.
Methodology/principal findings: We developed a simulation model to evaluate counts obtained by divers deploying non-instantaneous belt-transect and stationary-point-count techniques. We assessed how fish speed and survey procedure (visibility, diver speed, survey time and dimensions) affect observed fish counts. Results indicate that the bias caused by fish speed alone is huge, while survey procedures had varying effects. Because the fastest fishes tend to be the largest, the bias would have significant implications on their biomass contribution. Therefore, caution is needed when describing abundance, biomass, and community structure based on non-instantaneous UVC, especially for highly mobile species such as sharks.
Conclusions/significance: Based on our results, we urge that published literature state explicitly whether instantaneous counts were made and that survey procedures be accounted for when non-instantaneous counts are used. Using published density and biomass values of communities that include sharks we explore the effect of this bias and suggest that further investigation may be needed to determine pristine shark abundances and the existence of inverted biomass pyramids. Because such studies are used to make important management and conservation decisions, incorrect estimates of animal abundance and biomass have serious and significant implications.