How satellite tracking can help save endangered sea turtles

Upwell’s Executive Director, Dr. George Shillinger, shares his experience using spatial ecology research to inform conservation of pelagic species, including highly migratory marine turtles.


In July 2006 I joined one of the first satellite tracking expeditions conducted by the Charles Darwin Foundation’s Shark Research Program in the Galapagos. I joined Drs Peter Klimley (“Dr Hammerhead”), James Ketchum, Alex Hearn, and Patricia Zárate as a doctoral candidate in the Block Lab at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, conducting satellite-tracking studies on leatherback turtles, sharks and billfish within the Eastern Pacific.

During our time in the Galapagos we formed two research teams, one working to deploy acoustic tags on hammerhead and Galapagos sharks, and another deploying satellite tags on various shark species, including Galapagos sharks, blacktip sharks and silky sharks. In addition to yielding novel and exciting findings regarding the movements and habitat-use of sharks and rays in Ecuadorian waters, our trip inspired many new research collaborations, and served as a catalyst for the development of MigraMar, a marine research and conservation network.

My dissertation at Stanford utilized satellite tracking and remotely sensed environmental data to describe and characterize the movements and high-use habitats of East Pacific leatherback turtles. I tracked 46 post-nesting female turtles departing from Playa Grande, Costa Rica from 2004 to 2008. The satellite tracking data yielded information on critical inter-nesting, migration and foraging habitats throughout the range of this population of leatherbacks. The results also confirmed the presence of a migration corridor for leatherbacks from the nesting beach in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Costa Rica and Ecuador, including Cocos Islands the Galapagos Islands, to core foraging habitats in the South Pacific Gyre.

In addition to my role as Executive Director of Upwell I am a founding member of MigraMar, which aims to improve protections for multiple highly migratory marine species found across the Eastern Pacific—including five different species of marine turtles.

Using models that pair satellite tracking data on leatherbacks with remotely sensed environmental variables, we can now predict where and when leatherbacks are most likely to occur—and where they are most vulnerable to fisheries interactions. This information provides the foundation for swimways (MigraVias), an innovative transboundary marine resource management strategy Upwell is advancing with MigraMar to save critically endangered East Pacific leatherbacks by reducing threats at sea.

Satellite transmission positions for 46 leatherback turtles from 2004 (orange), 2005 (purple), and 2007 (green), tagged at Playa Grande, Costa Rica.

Satellite transmission positions for 46 leatherback turtles from 2004 (orange), 2005 (purple), and 2007 (green), tagged at Playa Grande, Costa Rica.

Schematic of turtle migration corridor through the equatorial current system. Both figures from  Shillinger et al. (2008) .

Schematic of turtle migration corridor through the equatorial current system. Both figures from Shillinger et al. (2008).

Upwell and MigraMar are currently working together to develop transboundary conservation initiatives for leatherbacks and other highly migratory species in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. We collaborate to address fisheries interactions with sea turtles through the ongoing collection of satellite tracking and fisheries observer data, the development of predictive habitat-based models, promotion of increased observer coverage within high-use marine turtle habitats, sea turtle education and awareness efforts, completion of many peer-reviewed scientific publications, and engagement of citizen scientists in data collection and monitoring efforts. Upwell’s collaboration with MigraMar continues to generate benefits for sea turtles in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, including expansions of marine protected areas and improvements to conservation policies and management regimes.

A version of this article was published in the Spring 2019 GOBI (Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative) Newsletter.