Provost Multidisciplinary Research Initiative Is Funded

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Dr. Alonso Aguirre is pleased to announce the funding of a 2016 Provost Multidisciplinary Research Initiative:

Title: Effects of the Illegal Consumption of Sea Turtles on Environmental Security and Human Health in Northwestern Mexico

Participating Colleges/Academic Units:
College of Science (COS)
College of Health and Human Services (CHHS)
School of Policy, Government and International Affairs (SPGIA)

Award:$50,000.00

Project Director: Dr. A. Alonso Aguirre
Department/Center/Institute: Environmental Science and Policy (ESP), College of Science (COS)
Contact Information: aaguirr3@gmu.edu

Co-Director (s): Dr. Kathryn H. Jacobsen
Department/Center/Institute: Global & Community Health, CHHS
Contact Information: kjacobse@gmu.edu

Other Major Participating Investigators/Partners:
Dr. Adrian Canizalez-Roman, Professor, Faculty of Medicine, Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa, Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico
Dr. Patrick M. Gillevet, Director, Microbiome Analysis Center and Professor, COS
Dr. Robert Jonas, Chair and Associate Professor, ESP, COS
Dr. Louise Shelley, Director, Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and University Professor, School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs (SPGIA)
Dr. Alan A. Zavala-Norzagaray, Research Professor, CIIDIR-IPN Unidad Sinaloa, Guasave, Sinaloa, Mexico

Summary

Despite current international regulations, sea turtle products (e.g., meat, adipose tissue, organs, blood, eggs) remain common food items for many communities worldwide. The consumption of sea turtles, however, may have adverse human health effects due to the presence of bacteria, parasites, biotoxins and environmental contaminants. Reported health effects of consuming sea turtles or their eggs infected with zoonotic infectious agents include diarrhea, vomiting, and extreme dehydration, which in several occasions have resulted in hospitalization and death. Outbreaks of gastroenteritis caused by Salmonella chester and Vibrio mimicus have also been reported. Other zoonotic agents found in sea turtles include Escherichia coli and Cryptosporidium sp. and these may represent a risk. Human fatalities and illness induced by poisoning from eating marine turtles have been reported throughout the Indo-Pacific region. To the best of our knowledge no studies have been performed correlating sea turtle organic contaminant or heavy metal levels, consumption of meat or eggs and risks to human health.  Although contaminant levels vary according to sea turtle species and location, recent research suggests that turtles in northwestern Mexico may have elevated contaminant levels, and their consumption is cause for concern.    The health data previously published by Aguirre et al. 2006 (see attached) provide a compelling argument for the reduction of human consumption of sea turtles. Dissemination of this information may improve public health and simultaneously result in enhanced conservation of these endangered species. Science News featured Aguirre’s findings in https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/food-thought/sea-turtles%E2%80%94what-not-eat but no interest by funding agencies was evident as we are dealing with a chronic, longterm problem.

However, the Provost Multidisciplinary Research Initiative provided the unique opportunity to close the loop on this exciting question: are sea turtles dangerous to your health? We believe sea turtle meat is dangerous to human health, as it is contaminated with toxic heavy metals, including cadmium and mercury. These chemicals can cause kidney/liver failure, neurological damage, and other serious diseases to humans. No previous study has linked turtle consumption to high levels of toxins in humans and during this pilot study we are very likely to demonstrate high levels of toxic heavy metals in humans who consume sea turtles.

This project will attempt to demonstrate that the consumption of illegally harvested sea turtles is not just ecologically damaging but also a direct threat to human health and to environmental security for the region. This work will be critical for the development of a larger research proposal to be submitted to federal funding agencies and foundations. Within Mason this research combines our expertise in toxicology, ecology, epidemiology, public policy, environmental law, and endangered species protection. The project will bring faculty and students from these disparate fields together around a vital environmental security issue in the largest sense. This case study will provide an important foundation for expanded future work seeking solutions to biodiversity issues and security in other countries across the globe. A healthy environment and compliance with international treaties and regulations are essential for health, international relations, peace, and stability.

All sea turtle species documented in Mexico are endangered, and one of the main drivers of their decline is human consumption. Despite the bans and international laws on sea turtle fishing and derived products that have been in place for several decades, sea turtle consumption remains prevalent throughout Mexico.  In Baja California, 75% to 100% of the sea turtle mortality rate for various species is due to human consumption and more than 30,000 turtles are consumed each year. At least one quarter of the local residents in this area consume sea turtle monthly.

Figure 1a

Figure 1a

Figure 1b

Figure 1b

A survey of dumps found hundreds of loggerhead turtle carcasses, the majority of which had been eaten (Fig. 1a).  Most of these dead turtles were juveniles a critical life stage for population health, and this suggests that continued human consumption would devastate sea turtle populations (Fig. 1b).  While consumption of sea turtle meat has decreased in some regions, turtle trafficking and illegal harvesting are continuing threats to environmental security of the region.   But poaching is not only a threat to animal and ecological health; it is also a threat to human health.  Sea turtle meat and other products are frequently contaminated with bacteria, parasites, organochlorine compounds, and heavy metals, including cadmium and mercury.  These chemicals can cause kidney and liver failure, neurological disorders, and other forms of severe human disease when they accumulate in the body.

To date, attempts to halt sea turtle consumption have largely failed.  We realize that we must appeal to people’s self-interests to save the turtles.  Concerns about toxins in fish have reduced consumption of some species of fish (i.e. tuna, sharks).  A similar reduction in sea turtle consumption may occur if we can demonstrate that humans who consume turtles face similar health risks from exposure to heavy metals, including cadmium and mercury.

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More links:

The original article from EcoHealth is here:
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10393-006-0032-x

The announcement by the Office of the Provost is here:
http://provost.gmu.edu/faculty-research-support/provost-multidisciplinary-research-initiatives-request-for-proposals-2/funded-proposals-2016-multidisciplinary-research-initiatives/

To learn more about this research, you can watch the short film above (Dr. Alonso Aguirre first appears at about 3:19). The documentary chronicles how communities that once depended on sea turtle poaching and other extractive activities depleting the region’s rich natural resources are now testing with a new economic model, one built around conservation and sustainable tourism. The short film provides an intimate portrait of those working to balance economic advancement with environmental protection and striving to create a better life for both the community and the endangered sea turtles .