Predicting the spatial distribution of a seabird community to identify conservation areas in the Timor Sea

Jennifer L. Lavers, Mark G. Miller, Michael J. Carter, George Swann, Rohan H. Clarke

Conservation Biology 28: 1699-1709

Understanding spatial and temporal variability in the distribution of species is fundamental to the conservation of marine and terrestrial ecosystems. To support strategic decision making aimed at sustainable management of the oceans, such as the establishment of protected areas for marine wildlife, we identified areas predicted to support multispecies seabird aggregations in the Timor Sea. We developed species distribution models for 21 seabird species based on at‐sea survey observations from 2000–2013 and oceanographic variables (e.g., bathymetry). We applied 4 statistical modeling techniques and combined the results into an ensemble model with robust performance. The ensemble model predicted the probability of seabird occurrence in areas where few or no surveys had been conducted and demonstrated 3 areas of high seabird richness that varied little between seasons. These were located within 150 km of Adele Island, Ashmore Reef, and the Lacepede Islands, 3 of the largest aggregations of breeding seabirds in Australia. Although these breeding islands were foci for high species richness, model performance was greatest for 3 nonbreeding migratory species that would have been overlooked had regional monitoring been restricted to islands. Our results indicate many seabird hotspots in the Timor Sea occur outside existing reserves (e.g., Ashmore Reef Marine Reserve), where shipping, fisheries, and offshore development likely pose a threat to resident and migratory populations. Our results highlight the need to expand marine spatial planning efforts to ensure biodiversity assets are appropriately represented in marine reserves. Correspondingly, our results support the designation of at least 4 new important bird areas, for example, surrounding Adele Island and Ashmore Reef.