virtual population analysis
A mathematical modelling technique used in stock assessment, whereby the number of fish in each cohort is estimated from numbers in the next oldest or next youngest age group, adjusted for the changes due to fishing and natural mortality; see also cohort analysis.
An analysis of the catches from a given year class over its life in the fishery. If 10 fish from the 1968 year class were caught each year for 10 successive years from 1970 to 1979 (age 2 to age 11), then 100 fish would have been caught from the 1968 year class during its life in the fishery. Since 10 fish were caught during 1979, then 10 fish must have been alive at the beginning of that year. At the beginning of 1978, there must have been at least 20 fish alive because 10 were caught in 1978 and 10 more were caught in 1979. By working backward year by year, one can be virtually certain that at least 100 fish were alive at the beginning of 1970. A virtual population analysis goes a step further and calculates the number of fish that must have been alive if some fish also died from causes other than fishing.
For example, if in addition to the 10 fish caught per year in the fishery, the instantaneous natural mortality rate was also known then a virtual population analysis calculates the number that must have been alive each year to produce a catch of 10 fish each year plus those that died from natural causes. If one knows the fishing mortality rate during the last year for which catch data are available (in this case, 1979), then the exact abundance of the year class can be determined in each and every year. Even when an approximate fishing mortality rate is used in the last year (1979), a precise estimate of the abundance can usually be determined for the stock in years prior to the most recent one or two (e.g., 1970-1977 in the example). Accuracy depends on the rate of population decline and the correctness of the starting value of the fishing mortality rate (in the most recent year). This technique is used extensively in fishery assessments since the conditions for its use are so common; many fisheries are heavily exploited, the annual catches for a year class can generally be easily determined, and the natural mortality rate is known within a fairly small range and is low compared with the fishing mortality rate.

Fisheries — dictionary. . 2004.

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