Often abundance of rare species cannot be estimated with conventional design-based methods, so we illustrate with a population of blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) a spatial model-based method to estimate abundance. We analyzed data from line-transect surveys of blue whales off the coast of Chile, where the population was hunted to low levels. Field protocols allowed deviation from planned track lines to collect identification photographs and tissue samples for genetic analyses, which resulted in an ad hoc sampling design with increased effort in areas of higher densities. Thus, we used spatial modeling methods to estimate abundance. Spatial models are increasingly being used to analyze data from surveys of marine, aquatic, and terrestrial species, but estimation of uncertainty from such models is often problematic. We developed a new, broadly applicable variance estimator that showed there were likely 303 whales (95% CI 176-625) in the study area. The survey did not span the whales' entire range, so this is a minimum estimate. We estimated current minimum abundance relative to pre-exploitation abundance (i.e., status) with a population dynamics model that incorporated our minimum abundance estimate, likely population growth rates from a meta-analysis of rates of increase in large baleen whales, and two alternative assumptions about historic catches. From this model, we estimated that the population was at a minimum of 16.5% (95% CI 7.3-34.4%) of pre-exploitation levels in 1998 under one catch assumption and 12.4% (CI 5.4-26.3%) of pre-exploitation levels under the other. Thus, although Chilean blue whales are probably still at a small fraction of pre-exploitation abundance, even these minimum abundance estimates demonstrate that their status is better than that of Antarctic blue whales, which are still <1% of pre-exploitation population size. We anticipate our methods will be broadly applicable in aquatic and terrestrial surveys for rarely encountered species, especially when the surveys are intended to maximize encounter rates and estimate abundance.
©2011 Society for Conservation Biology.