Scientists have not been able to establish the direct cause
of fibropapillomatosis. It is possible that a herpes-like
virus is the culprit in green sea turtles, but more state
and federal funding toward research is needed in order to
find out the cause(s) of fibropapillomatosis.
Fibropapilloma tumors are small at first, but they can grow
up to 10 centimeters. White spots appear as the first warning
signs, with growth primarily occurring around the neck and
shoulder areas. Within a year, the white spots usually develop
into full-blown tumors, affecting the eyes first. Tumors around
the eyes can cause partial or total loss of vision.
Fibropapillomatosis is most prominent in Hawai‘i and Florida
where half or more of the green sea turtles are affected (The
disease also threatens the Caribbean and Australia). The highest
recording of green sea turtles in Hawai‘i with fibropapilloma
tumors was in 1990, with 154 stricken by the disease, thus
spiking the growth rate to 92 percent (www.turtles.org/nmfs).
Many of the green sea turtles today live in muddy channels
and crevices at Kane‘ohe Bay, a popular resting habitat.
Besides tumors, honu populations are reduced by sharks, seagulls,
crabs, and dogs. The earliest confirmed case of predators
in Hawai‘i dates back to January 1958 when a young green sea
turtle with fibropapillomatosis was captured alive and killed
by a group of fishermen for its meat, eggs, and shells. Turtles
also drown from becoming entangled in discarded fishing nets
and fishing lines and they can be injured by eating discarded
plastics or ingesting bait-embedded fishing hooks.
If a sea turtle is caught on a fishing hook or entangled
in a fishing line or net, use a dip net (or your hands) and
firmly (but gently) hold the front flippers and shell to safely
lift the turtle out of the water. Keep the turtle in a shady
area while you cut the fishing line close to where the hook
is. Remove any extra line around the turtle with blunt scissors
or knife. To avoid further injury, don’t pull on the line
or remove the hook. Instead, immediately contact the National
Marine Fisheries’ Marine Turtle Research Program at 983-5730
or the Division of Aquatic Resources at the Hawai‘i State
Department of Land and Natural Resources at 587-0100.
The best way to keep the honu healthy is to prevent such
harmful events from happening. Don’t cast fishing lines or
nets where sea turtles are seen surfacing to breathe. Also,
help to reduce litter and water pollution by participating
in beach cleanups.