Possible health risk from handling captive sea turtles identified
Handling captive turtles can be a health risk. Photo credit Michelle de Villiers.
Potential exposure to septicaemia, pneumonia, meningitis and acute renal failure
February 2013. Tourists coming into contact with sea turtles at holiday attractions face a risk of health problems, according to research published by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM) Short Reports. Encountering free-living sea turtles in nature is quite safe, but contact with wild-caught and captive-housed sea turtles, typically through handling turtles in confined pools or through consuming turtle products, carries the risk of exposure to toxic contaminants and to zoonotic (animal to human) pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Symptoms, which may take some time to emerge, can resemble gastrointestinal disorders or flu but people more severely affected can suffer septicaemia, pneumonia, meningitis and acute renal failure.
The biggest bacterial culprits are E.Coli and Salmonella, although there are some lower infection threats from viruses such as Vibrio. Fungi and parasites represent the area of least concern.
Cayman Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman
The review included a case study of the Cayman Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman, which between 2007 and 2011 attracted approximately 1.2 million visitors. CTF sells farmed turtle meat to the public and local restaurants. One of the researchers, Clifford Warwick of the Emergent Disease Foundation, said: "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."
The turtles can be kept in cramped and dirty conditions. Photo credit World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Warwick added that awareness of potential threats may be modest among health-care professionals and low among the public. "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."
The study was funded by the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Warwick said: "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."
Warwick concluded: "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."
World Society for the Protection of Animals
After hearing concerning reports over the level of care of some 9,000 endangered Green sea turtles at CTF, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) ran an investigation and produced a scientific assessment of the Farm last year.
The global animal welfare charity, who funded this research, has been attempting to work with the facility to raise awareness of sea turtle welfare and to raise standards which will ultimately mean a transition away from the intensive commercial production of these endangered animals.
Dr Neil D'Cruze, WSPA Wildlife Campaign Lead said: "WSPA is unsurprised to hear that the handling of captive Green sea turtles poses a potential threat to the visiting public. This independent peer reviewed scientific paper demonstrates that the recent assessment of the Farm's operations is inherently flawed."
Conntact between turtles and humans should halt
Clifford Warwick expressed concerns that awareness of the potential human health threats posed by facilities such as the CTF may not be well understood by healthcare professionals and public awareness may be even lower, stating that overcoming this would be key to prevent and control the spread of sea turtle-related diseases.
Due to this low awareness people rarely trace back or attribute their illness to a recent experience handling wild sea turtles. This, along with the often generic nature of the symptoms, makes it hard to track the full distribution of these pathogens.
Dr D'Cruze added: "We hope that the Cayman Turtle Farm recognizes that the only real way to completely remove the human health threat will be to end the ‘unique wildlife encounter' currently at the facility and takes steps to do so, which will also immediately improve the lives of the turtles in their care."