1. Population estimates are commonly generated and used in conservation science. All estimates carry inherent uncertainty, but little attention has been given to when and how this uncertainty limits their use. This requires an understanding of the specific purposes for which population estimates are intended, an assessment of the level of uncertainty each purpose can tolerate, and information on current uncertainty.
2. We conducted a review and meta-analysis for a widespread group of seabirds, the petrels, to better understand how and why population estimates are being used. Globally petrels are highly threatened, and aspects of their ecology make them difficult to survey, introducing high levels of uncertainty into population estimates.
3. We found that by far the most common intended use of population estimates was to inform status and trend assessments, while less common uses were trialling methods to improve estimates and assessing threat impacts and conservation outcomes.
4. The mean coefficient of variation for published estimates was 0.17 (SD = 0.14), with no evidence that uncertainty has been reduced through time. As a consequence of this high uncertainty, when we simulated declines equivalent to thresholds commonly used to trigger management, only 5% of studies could detect significant differences between population estimates collected 10 years apart for populations declining at a rate of 30% over three generations.
5. Reporting of uncertainty was variable with no dispersion statistics reported with 38% of population estimates and most not reporting key underlying parameters: nest numbers/density and nest occupancy. We also found no correlation between uncertainty in petrel population estimates and either island size, body size or species threat status – potential predictors of uncertainty.
6. Key recommendations for managers are to be mindful of uncertainty in past population estimates if aiming to collect contemporary estimates for comparison, to report uncertainty clearly for new estimates, and to give careful consideration to whether a proposed estimate is likely to achieve the requisite level of certainty for the investment in its generation to be warranted. We recommend a practitioner-based value of information assessment to confirm where there is value in reducing uncertainty.