Incidental capture in fisheries threatens many marine vertebrates, however, conservation cannot be effective without identifying major sources of mortality. For the critically endangered leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), a reliance on fisheries observer data and an absence of behavioural data sets corresponding to a large and diverse sample of animals have focused conservation efforts on a very limited part of the species marine habitat. Using the largest satellite telemetry data set for Atlantic leatherbacks, morphometrics from foraging animals and entanglement records, we show annual return migrations to key feeding areas by males, females and juveniles, and demonstrate the importance of northern latitudes to leatherbacks. We show that leatherbacks are vulnerable to entanglement in northern coastal and shelf waters, where turtle–fishery interactions represent a greater threat to this species than previously recognized. Unless conservation efforts expand to coastal and shelf areas, present efforts alone will not be sufficient to save the species.