Between 2007 and 2010, National Park Service (NPS) staff at the Point Reyes National Seashore, California, collected over 300,000 photographic images of Drakes Estero from remotely operated wildlife monitoring cameras. The purpose of the systems was to obtain photographic data to help understand possible relationships between anthropogenic activities and Pacific harbor seal (Phoca vitulina richardsi) behavior and distribution.
The value of the NPS photographs for use in assessing the frequency and impacts of seal disturbance and displacement in Drakes Estero has been debated. In September 2011, the NPS determined that the photographs did not provide meaningful information for development of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Drakes Bay Oyster Company Special Use Permit. Limitations of the photographs included lack of study design, poor photographic quality, inadequate field of view, incomplete estuary coverage, camera obstructions, and weather limitations.
The Marine Mammal Commission (MMC) reviewed the scientific data underpinning the Drakes Bay Oyster Company DEIS in November 2011 and recommended further analysis of the NPS photographs for use in characterizing rates and consequences of seal disturbance (Marine Mammal Commission, 2011). In response to that recommendation, the NPS asked the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct an independent review of the photographs and render an opinion on the utility of the remote camera data for informing the environmental impact analyses included in the DEIS.
In consultation with the NPS, we selected the 2008 photographic dataset for detailed evaluation because it covers a full harbor seal breeding season (March 1 to June 30), provides two fields of view (two cameras were deployed), and represents a time period when cameras were most consistently deployed and maintained. The NPS requested that the photographs be evaluated in absence of other data or information pertaining to seal and human activity in the estuary and that we focus on the extent to which the photographs could be used in understanding the relationship between human activity (including commercial oyster production) and harbor seal disturbance and distribution in the estuary.