To eat or not to eat…an endangered species?

Hunting of protected species such as whales, turtles, and primates for human consumption remains one of the leading threats to their survival. It can also 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 reported in the journal EcoHealth 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.

Cooking turtle (Photo by Jeffrey Brown wth permission)

“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 Dr 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,” Dr Nichols said.

Recently, researcher Jesse Senko and Dr Nichols interviewed 134 residents and 37 physicians in Baja California Sur, Mexico, about their knowledge of the dangers of eating sea turtles. This region has one of the highest known levels of sea turtle consumption in the world. Their study found that although physicians believed that sea turtles were an unhealthy food source, they were unable to identify specific health hazards found in sea turtles. By contrast, residents believed that sea turtles were a healthy food source and were unable to identify any specific health hazards. The researchers were surprised to find that one-third of physicians reported having treated patients who were sickened from sea turtle consumption.

Eating turtle (Photo by Jeffrey Brown with permission)

“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 Senko, the study’s lead author.

“We believe that residents lack the necessary knowledge needed to make informed dietary decisions and physicians do not have enough information to communicate risks with their patients. 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”, added Senko.

“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,” said Dr Nichols. “Our long term goals are healthy people, healthy communities, lots of sea turtles and a clean ocean.”

Blog written by Jesse Senko, BOI seafood consultant: [email protected]

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