by Beth Whitman and Hannah Levenson
The relatively pristine coastal marine habitats of the Abacos attracts many juvenile and sub-adult sea turtles. The 2009 ban of turtle hunting and egg collecting in all of the Bahamas further provides an ideal destination for young and growing turtles before they mature and move on to their mating habitats. So if this is a healthy environment why are we now seeing sick turtles? Unfortunately we don’t know… Bonefishing guides report frequent sightings of tumor-bearing turtles from Sandy Point to Moore’s Island, and we personally observed one affected turtle near a blue hole in tidal creeks of the Bight of Old Robinson this summer.
The tumor causing fibropapilloma disease (herpesvirus) is threatening sea turtles on a global scale, and is one of the greatest known natural threats to sea turtles. In Florida, it is listed as one of the top two threats along with artificial lighting of nesting beaches. The exact cause and survival rate of this disease are still unknown, but observations and strandings of turtles with visible growths have increased over the past few decades. Many hot-spots for fibropapilloma disease are near highly urbanized coastal areas and some evidence associates the disease with the distribution of toxic benthic dinoflagellates.
Surgery is the only way that has been found so far to keep the tumors from growing. To treat the tumors, the turtles must undergo surgery performed with a CO2 laser that simultaneously cuts the skin without contact and cauterizes the incision to reduce bleeding. The tumors are also known to grow internally on the lungs, kidneys, liver, and intestines. However, turtles with these internal tumors must be euthanized since there is no cure yet for these internal tumors.
Is the increase in turtles with fibropapilloma disease associated with the increase in human population in the Abacos? Is this a result of the natural spreading of the disease from other sea turtle populations? How will this affect Abaco’s sea turtles in the future? This all remains to be seen, but it is certainly worth documenting the cases we see!