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For Immediate Release
17 March 2010
To eat or not to eat…an endangered species?
New study connects eating endangered sea turtles with human health risks
Hunting of protected species such as whales, turtles and primates for human consumption remains one of the leading threats to their survival and can be harmful to humans. Public attention focuses on cases such as the Japanese dolphin hunts depicted in Academy Award-winning film, The Cove. But most hunts occur out of sight and out of mind and the potential health effects are unknown to most medical professionals.
A team of researchers led by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences previously reported in the journal EcoHealth evidence that consuming endangered sea turtles may be harmful to human health due to biotoxins, environmental contaminants, viruses, parasites and bacteria. However, many people in areas with high levels of sea turtle consumption, such as northwestern Mexico, are unaware of this information, researchers say.
“Because sea turtles have been legally protected in Mexico since 1990 and because the punishments are steep, there is very little information available to residents and physicians about possible deleterious health effects from eating turtles” said Nichols. He added that sea turtle meat and eggs are often sold on the unregulated black market, where processing, handling and freshness may be of dubious sanitary quality. “These animals are long-lived and high on the food chain, meaning that environmental contaminants can easily bioaccumulate and magnify,” Nichols said.
The current study focuses on understanding how residents and doctors perceive this information and will help researchers determine how to most effectively share it.
In the present study the researchers found that although physicians believed that sea turtles were an unhealthy food source, they were unable to identify specific health hazards found in regional sea turtles. By contrast, residents believed that sea turtles were a healthy food source and were also unable to identify specific health hazards found in regional sea turtles. The researchers were surprised to find that 32% of physicians reported having treated patients who were sickened from sea turtle consumption.
"In reality this number is probably even higher because patients may not share with their physicians that they were illegally consuming an endangered species, they may not directly attribute becoming sick with eating sea turtles because there is little to no information available to them regarding the risks, and they believed it was a healthy food source", said study's lead author Jesse Senko, Nichols' collaborator and a graduate student from the University of Florida in Gainesville.
"We believe that residents lack the knowledge needed to make informed dietary decisions and physicians do not have enough information to communicate risks with their patients," says Senko. "There needs to be a broad based and consistent effort by both the Mexican healthcare and environmental sectors to close the loop and share new scientific information with physicians and patients. Both doctors and patients should be provided with detailed information regarding health risks, as well as laws protecting these endangered animals."
"Hunting and eating sea turtles is an illegal but widespread activity that further endangers sea turtles in the region. That said, we want people to know about the potential negative health effects that may come with turtle eating. Yes, there are cultural and traditional questions involved. But to ignore or hide information related to public health would be irresponsible," adds Nichols. "Our long term goals are healthy people, healthy communities, lots of sea turtles and a clean ocean."
The researchers interviewed 134 residents and 37 physicians in Baja California Sur, Mexico, a region with one of the highest known levels of sea turtle consumption in the world. The results of this study are forthcoming in the journal EcoHealth.
The full study in EcoHealth can be downloaded HERE
Previous study on sea turtles and human health in the journal EcoHealth can be found HERE
The authors can be contacted at
Jesse Senko: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wallace J. Nichols: email@example.com/ wallacejnichols.org
For information about the journal EcoHealth, and the field of conservation medicine, contact:
Anthony Ramos, Director of Marketing & Communications, EcoHealth: firstname.lastname@example.org
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