The sensitivity of seabird populations to density-dependence, environmental stochasticity and anthropogenic mortality.
1. The balance between economic growth and wildlife conservation is a priority for many governments. Enhancing realism in assessment of population-level impacts of anthropogenic mortality can help achieve this balance. Population Viability Analysis (PVA) is commonly applied to investigate population vulnerability, but outcomes of PVA are sensitive to formulations of density-dependence, environmental stochasticity and life history. Current practice in marine assessments is to use precautionary models that assume no compensation from density-dependence or rescue-effects via "re-seeding" from other colonies. However, if we could empirically quantify regulatory population processes, the responses of populations to additional anthropogenic mortality may be assessed with more realism in PVA. 2. Using Bayesian state-space models fitted to population time series from three sympatric seabird populations, selected for varied life histories, we inferred the extent to which their dynamics are driven by environmental stochasticity and density-dependence. 3. Based on these inferences, we conducted an exhaustive PVA across credible parameterizations for intrinsic and extrinsic population regulation, simulated as a closed and re-seeded system. Scenarios of anthropogenic mortality, along a sliding scale of precaution, were applied both proportionally and as a fixed quota using Potential Biological Removal (PBR). 4. Baseline results from fitting revealed clear environmental regulation in two of our three species. Crucially, we found that for our empirically derived, realistic model parameterizations there are risks of decline to real populations even under very precautionary mortality scenarios. We find that PBR is dubious in application as a sustainable tool for population assessment when we account for regulation. Closed versus re-seeded models showed a large divergence in outcomes, with sharper declines in closed simulations. Fixed-quota mortality typically induced greater population declines comparative to proportional mortality, subject to regulation and re-seeding. 5. Synthesis and applications. Practitioners using arbitrary formulations of population regulation risk over-precaution (economic constraint) or under-precaution (endangering populations). The demands of increased economic development and preservation of wildlife require that methodologies apply techniques that confer reality and rigour to assessment. The current practice of employing models lacking density-dependence and empirical environmental information imposes limitations in the efficacy of estimating impacts. Here, we provide a method to quantify the conditions that predominantly regulate a population and exacerbate the risk of decline from anthropogenic mortality. It is in the interests of both developers and conservationists to apply methods in population impact assessments that capture realism in the processes driving population dynamics.