During the 1980's, restrictive harvest regulations linked to declines in mid-continent duck populations and restrictions on black duck harvest led to a shift in hunting pressure to lesser-utilized species, such as sea ducks. Concern among Atlantic coast waterfowl biologists about this increase in pressure on sea ducks led to a variety of surveys in different areas being conducted at different times, using a variety of techniques that were not compatible.
Existing breeding population surveys for North American waterfowl do not cover the core ranges of about half of North American sea duck species. Many species of North American sea ducks breed across vast Arctic regions that are difficult and costly to survey. Winter waterfowl surveys such as the Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey typically do not cover near shore or offshore coastal habitats used by sea ducks. The Atlantic Flyway Sea Duck Survey was established in 1991 to record sea duck numbers using near shore (within 700 m of shore) habitats from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to Jacksonville, Florida.