Captive Sea Turtles Carry Harmful Pathogens, Health Risks Associated With Contact

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Sea turtles have always been a big draw for tourists at a seaside attraction, but, according to a new research review, captive turtles and turtle products could have a health risk associated with them.

The review, published in the latest edition of JRSM Short Reports, found that wild-caught sea turtles living in captivity carry the risk of exposure to toxic contaminants and harmful pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.

Because symptoms related to exposure can take hours or days to emerge, exposed persons–especially tourists–run the risk of unknowingly spreading these contaminants throughout the general population.

“The subsequent distribution of visitors exposed to turtle farm conditions may also involve opportunities for further dissemination of contaminants into established tourist hubs including cruise ship and airline carriers,” said review author Clifford Warwick of the U.K.-based Emergent Disease Foundation.

A major section of the review focused on a commercial sea turtle facility known as the Cayman Turtle Farm in the Cayman Islands. The farm received about 1.2 million visitors between 2007 and 2011. Besides making the facility an important way for people to interact with sea turtles, the farm also sells farmed turtle meat to visitors and local restaurants.

The review attempted to examine the captive turtles´ link to microbiological, macrobiological, and toxic contaminants. According to the authors, sea turtle-related microbiotic pathogens and parasites have not been studied in great detail. They also noted that contaminant studies often related only to wild turtles that had been exposed to oil spills or chemical waste.

The researchers found that the turtles and their associated products carry different degrees of risk–depending on the particular pathogen or contaminant. Of the most concern, they said, were parasites and bacteria–along with various types of contaminants.

“Significantly, the captive farming of turtles arguably increases the threat to health, in particular from bacteria, due to the practice of housing many turtles in a relatively confined space and under intensive conditions,” said Warwick.

“People should avoid food derived from sea turtles and perhaps also other relatively long-lived species regardless of their role in the food chain as all these animals potentially have more time in which to accumulate hazardous organisms and toxins and present an increased risk of animal-linked human pathology,” he added.

The review authors also said that the public awareness of this issue was relatively low, considering the level of risk. They cited one study involving 134 residents and 37 physicians, in a region where consumption of sea turtle meat was quite popular, that found 32 percent of physicians had treated patients for illnesses related to turtle meat. The physicians added that sea turtle products were unhealthy foods, but they were largely unaware of any specific risks.

Warwick added that greater awareness needs to be raised about the risks associated with captive sea turtles.

“To prevent and control the spreading of sea turtle-related disease, greater awareness is needed among health-care professionals regarding potential pathogens and toxic contaminants from sea turtles, as well as key signs and symptoms of typical illnesses,” he said.

Update (Feb. 6, 2013  12:25 p.m.):

In a statement released by the Cayman Turtle Farm, the organization noted that the study was funded by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), a conservation group. The statement added that the farm has been in contact with the WSPA regarding their concerns, and despite an ongoing dialogue–the conservation group has been waging a “smear campaign” designed to shut down the farm.

“These latest allegations are another clear effort by the WSPA to undermine the business of the CTF in WSPA´s ongoing goal to shut down our operations, since their campaign thus far has been unsuccessful in achieving that aim,” said the farm´s managing director Tim Adam. “Apparently WSPA has funded a report hoping it will help them achieve those objectives.”