Conservation efforts require a detailed understanding of the ecology and behavior of the species in question as well as identification of it major threats. As such, a conservation effort that takes into account only limited information may not be effective in achieving its goals. Such has been the case with leatherback sea turtles, where most data is gathered by observers operating on relatively few vessels and in a relatively small proportion of fisheries that have the potential to impact the species. Recent research by members of the Future of Marine Animal Populations (FMAP) project of the Census of Marine Life program addresses this issue and provides an analysis of leatherback behavioral data as well as interaction data that may offer new avenues for future conservation of this endangered species.
Using a combination of techniques that included satellite tracking, morphometrics, and analysis of entanglement, the researchers were able to follow the movements of leatherback turtles from the North Atlantic to the South Atlantic, and, in some cases, back again. The different data sets were then cross-referenced with each other to characterize the leatherback's habitat, including feeding areas, and the potential for threat (ie - entanglement, etc) within those areas. Results showed that there were high-use areas for leatherbacks in the continental shelf and slope areas that are commonly given little attention in interactions research. Additionally, the results of this study showed that, at least in the tested sample, leatherbacks spend more time in Northern areas than previously thought.
Contrary to accepted behavioral assumptions, the individuals in this study did not interact with pelagic longline fisheries, which have previously been named as a serious threat to leatherbacks. However, interactions with other types of inshore or coastal gear are commonly reported from the Northwest Atlantic all the way to the northern coast of South America.
In light of the results of this study, the researchers assert that more attention needs to be paid to coastal and continental shelf areas in future research to provide a more clear picture of how to manage this species. For current protection efforts to be effective, it is necessary to have sufficient knowledge of the species' high-use habitats, and how they overlap with human use.