Even when nesting beaches are fully protected, sea turtles confront grave threats in marine environments where they forage, mate and migrate.

Turtles entangled in longlines, ensnared in the nets of trawlers or caught on baited hooks may drown. Ship strikes can kill turtles instantaneously or lead to a slow death from wounds, internal injuries or impaired buoyancy. Ingested plastics and balloons can block airways or induce starvation by filling a turtle’s digestive tract. Climate change results in shifting ocean conditions that affect ocean productivity and food availability.

Sea turtle conservation to date has mostly focused on protecting nesting beaches. Relatively little is known about how sea turtles use marine environments. Only a fraction of female sea turtles are tracked after their departure from nesting beaches, and far fewer male sea turtles are tracked, since they must be captured at sea. Even less is known about the the time between the departure of hatchlings from nesting beaches until females reach maturity and return to their natal beaches to nest; scientists refer to this period as “the lost years.”

Photo Credit: Ben Hicks

We can reduce threats to sea turtles by learning more about how they make use of the marine environments where they spend most of their lives. Upwell’s satellite and acoustic tracking efforts generate greater knowledge of sea turtle behavior, foraging patterns and migration routes. We use this data to develop predictive models based on real-time oceanographic conditions and fisheries observer records. Through targeted community outreach and strong partnerships with policymakers and resource users, Upwell leverages these models to reduce negative human interactions with turtles at sea. We are also developing tools and outreach programs to enlist sailors and other constituencies on the water to act as citizen scientists, providing observations and datapoints to further improve our predictive models.