Context. An understanding of the genetic stock structure of wide-ranging marine species is necessary for sound conservation management. Eretmochelys imbricata is Critically Endangered globally, but is among the least studied marine turtles. Reduced population sizes, its long-distance migratory nature between feeding and nesting habitats and poor understanding of its stock structure, biology and anthropogenic impact(s) pose challenges to developing effective conservation strategies for regional conspecifics.
Aims. Quantification of the population connectivity between specific feeding areas and regional nesting populations is needed for threat assessment and development of mitigation actions.
Methods. Here, we sequenced the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of 91 immature and adult foraging E. imbricata individuals captured at the Howick Group of islands in the far-northern section of the Great Barrier Reef (nGBR), Queensland, Australia. We used a Bayesian mixed-stock analysis (MSA) approach to determine the contribution of nine regional genetically characterised breeding populations to this feeding aggregation.
Key results. The MSA estimated that a majority (83%; 95% CI = 70–92%) of feeding E. imbricata had originated from nesting beaches in the Bismarck–Solomon Sea region, whereas only 15% (95% CI = 6–25%) had originated from nGBR rookeries. International reproductive migrations were also corroborated by the return of 18 uniquely numbered titanium flipper tags that had been applied to E. imbricata found foraging in the Howick Group and had swum to rookeries within the Bismarck–Solomon Sea region. These 18 turtles represent 86% of all migration tag–recaptures from the Howick Group.
Conclusions. We postulate that recent increases in nesting populations within the Solomon Islands may be due to the high level of protection afforded to foraging turtles within the Great Barrier Reef.
Implications. An understanding of the connectivity between specific feeding areas and nesting populations is necessary to determine threats to animals over their entire life history and, therefore, allow the development of sound conservation management actions.