Sea turtles undergo surgery for pollution-related tumors

The tumors obstruct their vision and movement

BOCA RATON, Fla. - Two green sea turtles from Gumbo Limbo Nature Center underwent laser surgery Friday to remove bulbous tumors on their eyes and flippers that are directly related to pollution in South Florida waterways.

The fibropapilloma tumors are common among young green sea turtles in waters polluted with agricultural runoff or sewage, said Kirt Rusenko, Gumbo Limbo's marine conservationist.

"The biggest factor is that fibropapillomas are only found in areas with pollution," he said. "In the Indian River Lagoon, about 70 percent of the green turtles there have these tumors, and in the Lake Worth Lagoon, it's about 60 percent."

The tumors obstruct the turtles' vision and movement, and they can lead to more risk of entanglement in plastics or monofilament line, Rusenko said.

"We really need more research on fibropapilloma, because we don't know a lot about it except that it is somehow related to pollution," he said.

Fibropapilloma was discovered in the 1930s in the Florida Keys, and now is a pandemic among sea turtles, said Sarah Milton, associate professor at Florida Atlantic University who studies the disease.

The disease is viral, but little else is known about its epidemiology. Scientists are researching what triggers tumor growth, she said.

"When the animal is stressed, its immune system is suppressed," she said. "Our hypothesis is that the suppressed immune system allows them to get the virus."

Gumbo Limbo is one of four facilities in the state that treats turtles with fibropapilloma tumors, thanks to a high-powered laser donated to the facility by the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation, said Mike Zewe, development officer for the Friends of Gumbo Limbo.

"After we had the big cold-stun last year, we realized how necessary it was to have that tool," he said. "The laser is precise enough to operate around the turtles' eyes, but powerful enough to operate on large animals like an elephant or a tiger."

Gumbo Limbo and the Palm Beach Zoo share the equipment, facilities and medical expertise for surgeries, he said.

So far, about 10 turtles have undergone the laser surgery, Zewe said.

"We still have to turn some turtles away, because we're simply at capacity," he said.

The fibropapilloma problem could get worse if sewage outflow and agricultural runoff continue to accumulate in waterways, Rusenko said.

"There's a big push in Broward to allow more sewage in the canal system, and there is a push in Tallahassee to reverse the decision on sewage outflow pipes" he said. "That's not really a good idea, since we're already seeing the effects of this pollution."

Sea turtles can be a sentinel species for health effects of water pollution, so fibropapilloma could point to future problems for humans, too, said Stefanie Ouellette, Gumbo Limbo manager.

"Sea turtles are a hardy species — a much hardier species than humans," she said. "If something like this is taking them down, what is it doing to us?"

Copyright © 2011, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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