Sea turtles are frequently on the menu of coastal communities in countries where protein is a valuable commodity. Unfortunately, not only should sea turtle consumption be discouraged because all 7 sea turtle species are either critically endangered, endangered, or threatened, it should also be discouraged because the consumption of sea turtles may pose health risks to humans. The journal EcoHealth published an article in 2006 (Aguirre, A. A. et al. 2006. Hazards associated with the consumption of sea turtle meat and eggs: a review for health care workers and the general public. EcoHealth 3: 141–153) describing the dangers of consuming sea turtles. In its description of the article, the journal states:
SEA TURTLES STRIKE BACK
In some Latin American countries, there are cautionary horror tales told of wedding guests who die shortly after consuming the flesh of sea turtles. It turns out these tales are probably based on actual events, as Aguirre et al. detail the potentially deleterious and often lethal dangers of consumption of marine turtles and their eggs in their extensive review. Not only bacteria and parasites may be found in these bioaccumulating cheloniids, but also dangerously high levels of heavy metals and toxins. The authors urge for a coordinated, global educative effort to prohibit further human health hazards—which may, felicitously, aid in conservation of these ancient animals.
In the article, Aguirre et. al. state:
reports of ongoing sea turtle consumption (legal and illegal) have emerged from many parts of the world, including Australia, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Central and South America, Mexico, Egypt, Vietnam, and Madagascar.
Coastal communities that consume sea turtles generally utilize the entire animal. While turtle meat is eaten directly, internal organs such as kidney and liver are used for soup. Oil is extracted from the fat as a cure for respiratory problems, especially in children, and the blood is drunk raw as a remedy for anemia and asthma. Additionally, sea turtle eggs are valued as an aphrodisiac.
In Latin America, sea turtles have historically been considered a delicacy served on special occasions such as weddings, Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Easter. In Mexico, where Catholicism is the predominant religion, the consumption of sea turtle meat and eggs increases during Lent. Many Mexican Catholics observe religious restrictions against the consumption of red meat, and consume sea turtles due to the belief that these species are fish. In addition to being a valuable food source, the use of this resource is highly ingrained as part of various regions’ cultural heritages and sea turtle consumption has thus gained traditional importance.
Not only does this threaten the sustainability of turtle populations, Aguirre and his co-authors argue that eating sea turtles poses risks for human consumers.
Scientific studies from around the globe indicate that sea turtles harbor various contaminants, parasites, bacteria, and biotoxins,” they write. “These hazards have been shown to have deleterious human health effects and, in some instances, cases of illness and death from sea turtle consumption have been documented. The documented cases of human health problems associated with the consumption of sea turtle products may be cause for concern given the worldwide prevalence of this practice.
They note that much information on the issue:
has been the domain of the scientific community, and not the general public or even public health community. Accordingly, it is important to effectively communicate pertinent information regarding the potential human health hazards associated with sea turtle consumption in areas where this practice is common.
The general public, particularly those at-risk in countries that consume turtle meat, need to be educated about both the risks of eating sea turtles and the risks to sea turtle populations due to sea turtle harvesting.
P.S. The green sea turtle photo in this post was taken by David/MarineBio in Indonesia!