Using population viability analysis to guide the recovery of Critically Endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle subpopulations

Both the Eastern and Western Pacific subpopulations of leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are Critically Endangered. This conservation status is the result of decades of historic egg harvest, ongoing bycatch from artisanal and industrial scale fisheries, and other human impacts, including vessel interactions, plastic pollution, targeted hunting, and climate change. Current conservation management actions focus on in situ interventions, such as nest protection and bycatch reduction, which aim to protect the species in their natural environments. Population viability analysis points to extinction unless bycatch can be reduced, but the feasibility of achieving bycatch reduction before extirpation occurs is uncertain, and additional management actions will be required to recover populations subject to multiple threats.

At recent meetings of more than 50 experts and stakeholders, the 2021 Eastern Pacific leatherback turtle: ex situ management recommendation development workshop, a range of ex situ management options were explored. These included movement of any life stage of the leatherback: from relocating nests to safer locations on the beach, to moving eggs into incubators to increase hatching success, and/or potentially rearing hatchlings in captivity until they reach larger sizes and are better suited to survive in the open ocean.


This PhD opportunity involves working with Upwell of California, USA on their mission to protect imperiled populations of marine turtles within their oceanic habitats. The selected candidate will support research to strengthen management decisions surrounding Pacific leatherback breeding stocks, to examine the merits of in situ and ex situ management interventions, individually and collectively. This includes continuation of population modelling, and addressing key knowledge gaps illuminated during the Ex situ management recommendation development workshop.

For additional background, see suggested readings below.

pacific leatherback sea turtle

Suggested readings



Associate Professor Nicola Mitchell, UWA

Nicki’s research is interdisciplinary but has a strong grounding in physiological ecology. Her current focus is to understand the capacity of threatened vertebrates to adapt to rapid environmental change, and to develop models and decision tools that can inform conservation initiatives such as assisted colonisation. She has long-term research programs on the impact of climate change on sex determination and survival in reptiles (especially sea turtles), and on the biology and conservation of terrestrial vertebrates, and how species such as amphibians will respond to drying climates.

Dr. George Shillinger, Upwell

George is a director of Upwell, and has a PhD in Marine Biology and an MS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Yale University School of Management. George develops scientific partnerships and leverages data to set conservation priorities, builds support in key constituencies and advances protections for turtles at sea. He has worked in environmental conservation since 1986, including satellite-tracking pelagic species such as sea turtles, sharks and tuna. As a Great Turtle Race co-founder, he used satellite-tracking data to raise global awareness of the plight of leatherbacks.


How to Apply 

Check criteria
  • To be accepted into the Doctor of Philosophy, an applicant must demonstrate they have sufficient background experience in independent supervised research to successfully complete, and provide evidence of English language proficiency
  • Preferred qualities:
    • strong academic background in conservation biology, ecology or marine biology
    • experience working with PVA software such as Vortex
    • experience with stakeholder engagement
    • willingness to conduct desktop-based research
    • excellent communication skills
Submit enquiry to research team leader 
  • Contact the research team leader by submitting an Expression of Interest form via the button below
  • After you have discussed your project with the research team leader, contact to proceed with your application


Domestic students

All domestic students may apply for Research Training Program and University Postgraduate Awards (UPA) scholarships.

The Australian Government's Endeavour Awards and Scholarships are available to Australian applicants for study in participating countries and regions.

International students

A range of scholarships are available from international organisations and governments. The full list, organised by country, is available on the Future Students website.

In addition, all international students may apply for International Research Training Program scholarships.

The Australian Government's Endeavour Awards and Scholarships are available to international applicants from participating countries and regions.

Indigenous students
Indigenous students are encouraged to apply for Indigenous Postgraduate Research Supplementary Scholarships.
Forrest Foundation scholarships
All international and Australian students who wish to study towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at The University of Western Australia may apply for Forrest Scholarships.

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