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Green Sea Turtles Swimming in Unknown Territory

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Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida Keys, disagreed with the federal downlisting of green sea turtles from an endangered species to “threatened” in May because of challenges facing green sea turtles. The primary challenge is the fibropapilloma virus or fibropapillomatosis which is evident in tumors on the turtles’ bodies. Fifty to seventy percent of green sea turtles are infected with the virus, she said.

“Last year, there were 119 cases of green sea turtles infected with the virus, and the number and severity of suffering green sea turtles is increasing,” Zirkelbach said. “While the virus was present in the 1930s as well, the environmental stressors have grown. These stressors include higher water temperature and poorer water quality tied to environmental degradation and climate change.” Zirkelbach said the amount of green sea turtles entering the Turtle Hospital with the disease in 2015 doubled compared to 2014 when 58 green sea turtles came in with the disease.

According to Wikipedia, the tumors can impede vision, feeding and movement. Around 25-30 percent of turtles with external tumors also have internal tumors, primarily in heart, lungs and kidneys.

When infected green sea turtles are rescued, they receive a computed tomography (CAT) scan to look for internal tumors and might be treated with a high tech laser. “When the disease was not so severe,” said Zirkelbach, “70
percent of the infected turtles survived. Now, only one-third survive.”

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According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, four-foot long green turtles weighing up to 440 pounds are “among the oldest creatures on earth [and] have remained essentially unchanged for 110 million years.” Green sea turtles are slow growing, with the longest age-to-maturity of any sea turtle species, from 35 to 50 years. Nests are constructed on coastal beaches, and are threatened by sea level rise. They are also threatened by poachers, fishing gear entanglement, bycatch and plastic trash in the ocean. Fibropapillomatosis in turtles is especially prevalent around populated islands, said Zirkelbach.

On the other hand, a researcher in the Marquesas and Dry Tortugas, a non-developed area off the coast of Key West has seen only two cases in four years.

Good News…..

Zirkelbach has traveled to Cuba over the past 20 years and said the westernmost area, Guanahaca Peninsula, has no infected green sea turtles. In fact, beaches there are home to the second largest breeding population of green turtles in Cuba with an average of more than 300 nests per season.

People are becoming more attune to pollution in oceans and increasing water temperatures, and thus there is hope for the green sea turtle, said Zirkelbach. And with a half dozen sea turtle rehabilitation sites and preserves throughout Florida, turtles may be getting sufficient attention to encourage people to be more aware of the threats, regardless of the federal downlisting from endangered
to threatened.

The goals of the Turtle Hospital are to rescue, rehabilitate and release sick and injured sea turtles; educate the public through outreach events and local schools; conduct and assist with research aiding sea turtles; and work toward legislation making beaches and water safe and clean.

Since its founding in 1986, the hospital staff has treated and released more than 1,500 sea turtles. The turtles are released at different locations depending on species, from 20 miles north of Marathon in the Florida Bay, to a local beach, or launched off a boat into the gulf or ocean. The Kemp’s Ridley species are taken 70 miles west of Key West to the coral reefs of the Dry Tortugas.

If you need a gift this holiday season for a person who has everything, perhaps adopting a turtle is the perfect idea. See www.turtlehospital.org for more information.

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Jill Borski
Jill Borski
Jill Zima Borski lives in Islamorada, Fla. and is board chair of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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