Using Satellite Tracking Data to Drive Conservation

Graeme C. Hays
Deakin University, Geelong, VIC, Australia
[email protected]

Nicole Esteban
Department of Biosciences, Swansea University, Swansea SA2 8PP, Wales, UK
[email protected]

Around the world many tens of millions of dollars are spent each year satellite tracking animals, including sea turtles and other marine animals (Hays & Hawkes 2018). Often one of the key reasons to justify these studies is that the tracking data might have value in conservation planning. Yet often there are no clear links between tracking studies and the implementation of conservation measures. We are keen to try and ensure that the conservation benefits of sea turtle tracking are maximised. To this end, with collaborators around the work we recently compiled examples of where satellite tracking of marine animals has helped drive conservation, so that key “best practices” could be identified (Figure 1a).


Figure 1. (a) Tracking data have been used in many ways to help species conservation, including being used to help designate protected area boundaries, to reduce bycatch and minimize vessel strike. Pictured are examples of this breadth of recent research showing the general location of some case studies, including tracking seabirds (e.g. penguins, albatrosses and shearwaters), marine mammals (e.g. whales, manatees, dugongs, dolphins and seals), sea turtles and fish. From Hays et al. 2019. (b) The tracks of green turtles after they had completed nesting in the Chagos Archipelago. Stars denote foraging locations at the end of each track. Hatched area denote the Marine Protected Area within which the nesting beaches lie. From Hays et al. 2020.

Across over 30 studies with marine mammals, fish, sea birds and turtles there was a common message that emerged. In order to maximise the translation of tracking data into conservation planning it is important:

  1. For scientists to do more that publish their tracking data in academic journals. Additionally they need to engage directly with policy makers, ideally during both the planning and implementation of their tracking work, so that policy makers are fully aware of what types of data are being collected.
  2. For tracking data to be made available for future work, so that tracking studies leave a legacy of data availability in perpetuity. Currently all too often tracking data are lost when a researchers retires or moves to another field.

In the Indian Ocean, a large number of sea turtle tracking studies have taken places over the last two decades, including studies tracking green, hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley and leatherback turtles. These include space use by immature loggerheads in Western Indian Ocean (Dalleau et al. 2014), identification of regional green turtle habitat connectivity in North West Indian Ocean (Pilcher et al. 2021), tracking post-nesting green and hawksbill turtles (Hays et al. 2000, 2022) as well as juvenile (Hays et al 2021). So for policy makers, if information on turtle movements will help drive conservation, there is likely tracking data available for lots of areas. Aside from using freely available academic search engines, like Google Scholar, perhaps one of the best ways to find out what data are already available, or currently being collected, is to reach out to the IOSEA country task force member (see membership here).

Our work tracking nesting green turtles in the Chagos Archipelago has shown that at the end of the nesting season they disperse very widely to foraging sites across the Western Indian Ocean, including the Maldives, Seychelles, Madagascar, Kenya, Somalia and Mozambique and that individuals have fidelity to their particular foraging site (Figure 1b). Please contact us if these tracking data will help your conservation efforts, such as identifying key foraging sites for protection.



Dalleau, M., Benhamou, S., Sudre, J., Ciccione, S., & Bourjea, J. (2014). The spatial ecology of juvenile loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) in the Indian Ocean sheds light on the “lost years” mystery. Marine biology, 161(8), 1835-1849.

Hays, G. C., & Hawkes, L. A. (2018). Satellite tracking sea turtles: Opportunities and challenges to address key questions. Frontiers in Marine Science, 432.

Hays, G. C., Bailey, H., Bograd, S. J., Bowen, W. D., Campagna, C., Carmichael, R. H., ... & Sequeira, A. M. (2019). Translating marine animal tracking data into conservation policy and management. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 34(5), 459-473.

Hays, G. C., Cerritelli, G., Esteban, N., Rattray, A., & Luschi, P. (2020). Open ocean reorientation and challenges of island finding by sea turtles during long-distance migration. Current Biology, 30(16), 3236-3242.

Hays, G.C., Mortimer, J.A., Rattray, A., Shimada, T., Esteban, N. (2021). High accuracy tracking reveals how small conservation areas can protect marine megafauna. Ecological Applications, 31(7), e02418.

Hays, G.C., Atchison-Balmond, N., Cerritelli, G., Laloë, J-O., Luschi, P., Mortimer, J.A., Rattray, A., Esteban, N. (2022). Travel routes to remote ocean targets reveal the map sense resolution for a marine migrant. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 20210859.

Pilcher, N. J., Antonopoulou, M. A., Rodriguez-Zarate, C. J., Mateos-Molina, D., Das, H. S., Bugla, I., & Al Ghais, S. M. (2021). Movements of green turtles from foraging areas of the United Arab Emirates: regional habitat connectivity and use of marine protected areas. Marine Biology, 168(1), 1-15.

Last updated on 22 April 2022