Sea Turtle Safety

While attending an event for the Progression Foundation – I was lucky enough to win a beautiful photo of a Hawksbill sea turtle swimming around in the waters of Hawaii. Mounted on shiny metal, I now have the pleasure of admiring this beautiful photo and animal each night before bed. However, as I smile at its beauty I also worry about what potential dangers the sea turtle might be facing as it swims out at sea.

While I know quite a bit about the environmental hazards ocean pollution can cause, I wanted to look more specifically into how sea turtles are being impacted. What I found made me both happy and concerned. Happy because among other dedicated research groups, an organization called SWOT exists that carries out research on the state of sea turtles worldwide. SWOT does this in many diverse ways, but I found one particular article of interest that I wanted to share with you.

As human populations continue to grow, we cannot fail to forget that we are intrinsically connected to each part of the environment that surrounds us. The moment we believe we are above nature or that we are not active participants in both many of the problems and the solutions – we are fooling ourselves.

Now, back to the work of SWOT:

IMG_3173 2
(The photo hanging in my room taken by Phil Waller)

Why should you care?

Well, if you don’t already love sea turtles because they are just adorable to begin with – consider that they are also a keystone species that serves as an indicator for the environmental wellness of the surrounding ecosystem. Worldwide there are 7 different species of sea turtle – of which Hawaii is home to two. By understanding how sea turtles are impacted by changes in the oceans worldwide – we can have a more holistic understanding of how other marine animals and plants might also be faring.

Why was this study carried out?

SWOT wanted to better understand how chemicals entering the ocean might be altering the health of sea turtles as representatives of the local ocean habitat. This is important because according to the American Chemical Society, an estimated 15,000 new chemicals are registered daily (thats one every 6 seconds). This makes understanding each chemical’s environmental and health implications to the fullest extent nearly impossible. As new chemicals are created, they can enter the ocean through water runoff, plastic and  material pollution, as well as through other avenues.

How was the study carried out?

A team of researchers from SWOT used the Great Barrier Reef in Australia as its study site. Over four years they took blood samples from sea turtles living in more “pristine” nearby ocean habitats and compared them with blood samples taken from turtles living closer to onshore activities, such as farming and mining.

What were the results?

The researchers found that sea turtles nearer to the coast had elevated blood levels of certain identifiable as well as unidentifiable trace chemical elements. Some turtles had cobalt blood levels 25 times higher than that of sea turtles tested from the offshore site. Additionally, various chemicals found in human health products such as heart and gout medication, sulfuric acid, and pesticides were detected in coastal sea turtles. Not surprisingly, many of the turtles whose blood contained high levels of cobalt and magnesium also suffered from systemic diseases, acute liver dysfunction, and eye lesions among other illnesses.

Interestingly, many of the chemicals that were identified were those that had been newly approved for use. However, because of the lack of information regarding their effects to the environment, the SWOT researchers face a new challenge of understanding exactly how chemicals are causing certain health complications in sea turtles. For example, the researchers tested the sediment in “near-to-shore” sea turtle environments expecting to find the same levels of chemical pollutants also found in turtle blood. However, the sediment samples showed only trace levels. This suggests further research is needed into identifying exactly where the turtles are ingesting the dangerous chemicals.

While researchers at SWOT continue to investigate various diseases in sea turtles – here are several that they have documented:

  • Fibropapillomatosis – Cancer of the skin of the turtle causing painful and large tumors. This disease can be fatal if it infects the internal system of the sea turtle or impairs mobility. Scientists suspect changes in sea temperatures and other factors are increasing the rate at which turtles show this disease.
FPP tumors on a Green sea turtle (image from Smithsonian Magazine)
  • Parasites – Turtles have been found with increasing numbers of blood flukes and flatworms in various organs of the body, but predominately in the intestinal tracts.
  • External parasites – Leeches and other species of parasites can attach to the shells and fins of the sea turtle; potentially carrying disease or disrupting the ability of sea turtles to exhibit normal behavior.
Parasites attached to sea turtle (image from Sea Turtle Guardian)

Want to know more?

If you would like to know more about the research SWOT is doing for sea turtle wellness, check out the their website.

Also, I encourage you to get to know more about what you can do to prevent ocean pollution by checking out this article by National Geographic – or by following these few easy steps:

  1. Reduce your use of single use plastics.
  2. Participate in a beach clean up.
  3. Avoid products that use microbeads like certain face washes, body scrubs, toothpastes etc. (or check the label and avoid these ingredients – polythelene and polypropylene).
  4. Stay motivated, informed, and spread the word! We all matter and we all can do our part.

Thank you for reading! You make the difference.


One Comment on “Sea Turtle Safety

  1. Unbelievably thought provoking post. Thanks for bringing this information to the forfront. If only we could take the time, each of us, to stop contributing to this problem. No more narcotics down toilets. No more dumping of toxins in storm drains. Start thinking past our convenience and more about global implications!

    Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

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