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Turtles in turmoil:
Fibropapilloma tumors a threat to Hawaiian green sea turtles

by Dava Della, Associate S&E editor


Since obtaining full legal protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, the population of Hawaiian green sea turtles (honu) has been increasing. According to the Pacific Whale Foundation, about 50 percent of this population has fibropapillomatosis, a tumor-forming degenerative disease. Fibropapillomatosis is marked by the abnormal growth of fibrous tissue on the skin or glands. The disease mainly affects the soft portions of a turtle’s body (flippers, eyes, neck, and tail), thus inhibiting normal functions such as feeding, breathing, and swimming. Recovery from these tumors is possible but unlikely; the usual outcome for most afflicted turtles is debilitation over time resulting in death.

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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 ( 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.




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