Spatial and temporal trends in yellow stingray abundance: evidence from diver surveys
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Recent concerns about changing elasmobranch populations have prompted the need to understand their patterns of distribution and abundance through non-destructive sampling methods. Since scientific divers represent a small portion of the total number of divers worldwide, the use of non-scientific divers could drastically increase the number of observations needed to monitor broad-scale, long-term trends. Here, we use 83,940 surveys collected by trained volunteer divers to examine spatial and temporal trends of the most frequently sighted elasmobranch species in the greater-Caribbean, the yellow stingray (Urobatis jamaicensis). Despite being relatively common and listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, little is known about the status of this species. In total, yellow stingrays were observed on 5,658 surveys (6.7% sighting frequency) with the highest occurrence in the regions surrounding Cuba. Overall, sighting frequency declined from 20.5% in 1994 to 4.7% in 2007—a standardized decline rate of −0.11. However, these trends were not consistent in all regions. The strongest decline occurred in the Florida Keys, the most sampled region, where trends were similar among all areas, habitats and depths. In contrast, sighting frequency significantly increased in Jamaica where large fishes are severely depleted. We discuss possible explanations for these changes including habitat degradation, exploitation and changes in trophic interactions. Our results suggest large-scale changes in yellow stingray abundance that have been unnoticed by the scientific community. Thus, our study highlights the value of non-scientific divers for collecting data that can be used to understand population trends of otherwise poorly studied species.