News Archive

Earth Institute News

tern island

Report From the French Frigate Shoals — Part 1

Read Part 2
Read Part 3
Read Part 4
Read Part 5

 

 

 

 


read more about the French Frigate Shoals  

posted 06/16/05

Studying Turtle Disease Has Challenges, And Some Are Fashion Related

By Joe Spring, Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Journalism Student

I'm supposed to be a field biologist, but I look more like a David Bowie fan getting ready for a Ziggy Stardust concert. Every night before leaving my tent I don black pantyhose, white running pants with a thick blue stripe down each side, heavyweight neon-orange kneepads, a long-sleeve Nike shirt, a thick tan vest, a red bandana tight against my skull and a pair of silver-and-black mesh shoes. Rather than an attempt at reviving 70’s glam-rock, this outfit is meant to protect me against ticks, crushed coral and broken glass as I crawl behind nesting sea turtles. Fortunately, I live alone in an eight-by-ten-foot tent on an 11-acre island in the middle of the tropical Pacific, so who really cares how I look?

The green sea turtle is now protected in waters around Hawaii, but faces threats from fishing bycatch, pollution and disease. Photo credit: Joe Spring/USFWS/NMFS

This summer I am researching fibropapillomatosis, a tumor-causing disease affecting sea turtles that some think may be linked to changes in the marine ecosystem resulting from agricultural, industrial or urban development. The project has taken me to French Frigate Shoals, a coral atoll approximately 560 miles northwest of Honolulu, where I am taking small tissue samples of the tumors from nesting female sea turtles.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have made this remote location an important study site by developing a joint program to monitor the threatened green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). George Balazs, head of the Marine Turtle Research Program at NMFS, has been instrumental in helping organize my project and teaching me about green sea turtles. In fact, it's likely because of Balazs that there are green sea turtles left to study.

Fibropapillomatosis causes tumors in sea turtles that some think may be linked to changes in the marine ecosystem resulting from agricultural, industrial or urban development. Photo credit: Lisa Canty/USFW

More than 30 years ago, Balazs noticed that ships were coming into Hawaiian ports stocked with turtles for market. This made him wonder how such a large take could be sustainable and set off to study the green sea turtle. What he found was that the species' very survival was at risk. In 1973, he traveled out to French Frigate Shoals, where more than 90 percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles nest, and found only 67 females laying eggs on East Island — not exactly a burgeoning population. He began a campaign to protect and study the "honu," as the green sea turtle is known in Hawaiian, and largely as a result of his efforts and the Endangered Species Act, the species is now protected in waters around Hawaii. Today the species is showing a steady increase in the number of nesting females over the last three decades.

Still, green sea turtles face many threats, including fishing by-catch, pollution, and my specific area of concern, disease, which is why  I have come to this atoll (and given up my minimalist fashion sense of shorts and a t-shirt) to study fibropapillomatosis. Even though an increase in the turtle’s numbers may indicate the glimmer of a recovery, changes to their health over the last 30 years reflect broader changes to the oceans that are more stark than the transition from bangs, bell bottoms, and glam rock to baggy pants, exposed midriffs, and hip-hop.

Related Links:

The Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Journalism Program
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- Green Sea Turtles
The National Marine Fisheries Service -- Green Sea Turtles

 

Part 1 2 3 4 5