Image subsampling and point scoring approaches for large-scale marine benthic monitoring programs

Benthic imagery is an effective tool for quantitative description of ecologically and economically important benthic habitats and biota. The recent development of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) allows surveying of spatial scales that were previously unfeasible. However, an AUV collects a large number of images, the scoring of which is time and labour intensive. There is a need to optimise the way that subsamples of imagery are chosen and scored to gain meaningful inferences for ecological monitoring studies. We examine the trade-off between the number of images selected within transects and the number of random points scored within images on the percent cover of target biota, the typical output of such monitoring programs. We also investigate the efficacy of various image selection approaches, such as systematic or random, on the bias and precision of cover estimates. We use simulated biotas that have varying size, abundance and distributional patterns. We find that a relatively small sampling effort is required to minimise bias. An increased precision for groups that are likely to be the focus of monitoring programs is best gained through increasing the number of images sampled rather than the number of points scored within images. For rare species, sampling using point count approaches is unlikely to provide sufficient precision, and alternative sampling approaches may need to be employed. The approach by which images are selected (simple random sampling, regularly spaced etc.) had no discernible effect on mean and variance estimates, regardless of the distributional pattern of biota. Field validation of our findings is provided through Monte Carlo resampling analysis of a previously scored benthic survey from temperate waters. We show that point count sampling approaches are capable of providing relatively precise cover estimates for candidate groups that are not overly rare. The amount of sampling required, in terms of both the number of images and number of points, varies with the abundance, size and distributional pattern of target biota. Therefore, we advocate either the incorporation of prior knowledge or the use of baseline surveys to establish key properties of intended target biota in the initial stages of monitoring programs.

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