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    Background

    The BeringWatch online database combines experience gained from the development of existing and well-refined environmental databases with a internet-based access system. The original Island Sentinel database was developed and refined by the Island Sentinel Programs on St. Paul and St. George Islands, Alaska and later used by the Aleut Marine Mammal Commission in Akutan and King Cove in the Aleutian Islands. The new BeringWatch online database is designed to bring these programs together into one unified internet-based community monitoring system for use by a much broader user group that and is designed to be adaptable for use across differing cultural and ecological regions.

    Monitoring Protocol and Procedure

    Observations using the Sentinel monitoring protocol are made from a series of regularly visited observation sites or “vantage points” aggregated within discrete regions in proximity to the community. Each vantage point is identified with GPS coordinates in order to ensure location repeatability. From each vantage point, observations may be made of focal species or other objects of interest in one or more associated areas or “views”. At each vantage point there may be one or more focal species of interest. In addition to the focal species, sightings of additional species of interest  are recorded opportunistically. Vantage points are selected to cover the most important areas for a given focal species (e.g. pinniped haulout sites or wintering waterfowl concentration areas) as well as areas where vantage points can be easily accessed on foot, by boat or from a vehicle during winter. Where possible, sentinels adopt the same fixed locations and scanning methodology used in previous surveys conducted by other organizations (e.g. previous USFWS gull counts).

    Typically sentinels walk or drive to each site, and conduct scans using handheld binoculars (10×42) or a spotting scope (40x). Vehicle-based surveys are important to maximize the likelihood of data collection throughout winter months, to facilitate an appropriate number and distribution of survey locations, and to simplify and standardize the protocol. A regular observation involves searching the water or landscape in an arc, from left to right, up to 1 mile offshore or across the landscape for 10-15 minutes. During this sample period all focal species present are identified, counted and recorded. Surveys are typically conducted at least once per week; frequency may increase to daily depending on the specific focus. Surveys are conducted throughout the year or seasonally as appropriate. Inclement weather and road conditions are limiting during winter, a fact that is accounted for during the planning and vantage point selection process. Vantage points with overlapping focal taxa are always used when possible.

    The data are recorded in the field using either handheld PDA computers with a custom database designed for the Sentinel program or using pre-printed data forms or logbooks. Field data is synchronized or entered into the central database upon returning to the office. The level of observational detail is structured on a hierarchical scale. Counts range from present/absent to specific numbers. When large numbers are present, count estimations are conducted by blocking (i.e. counting 10, using this size/density of block to count 100, using this size block to count 1000, and so on). All new personnel are trained in block counting by experienced personnel. The category level of detail ranges from more generic species groupings such as “seaduck” or “whale” to clear and reliable identification of species, sex and class (e.g. adult or immature). In addition, any large groups of a focal species or other important species are photographed whenever possible.

    Data Management and Oversight

    Data reliability and quality, critical to the success of any community monitoring effort, are protected at three levels of programmatic management: 1) standardized methodology and monitoring protocols; 2) training; and 3) built in data management and oversight. As outlined above, the Sentinel methodology is standardized through its monitoring protocols and training structure. Standardization is also accomplished through the database structure and by entering data directly into the database in the field with handheld computers (PDAs). The use of PDAs greatly reduces the chance of error during the data recording stage. It also ensures that data is entered in a timely manner (i.e. downloaded upon return). Alternatively, some sentinels may rely on standardized paper forms or logbooks that provide a standardized template for recording necessary data fields. Proofing data after it has been entered is also part of the scheduled data management activities occurring on a regular basis. Finally, a carefully defined quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) protocol is a critical part of data management and oversight. The QCCAR protocol that has been utilized in the St Paul Island Sentinel operation has been integrated into the BeringWatch online database for use in other communities.