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WWF links pollution to increase in diseased turtles

By Timothy McDonald, ABC Online

1036 days ago   Article ID# 1416376
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World Wildlife Fund

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA (ABC Online) - The World Wildlife Fund says that pollution might be to blame for a dramatic increase in the number of turtles with a debilitating form of the herpes virus.

The virus causes large tumours that may cause blindness, immobility, and the obstruction of internal organs among green turtles.

The illness is much more common near Bowen in North Queensland than it is elsewhere and the fund says runoff from the area's rivers may play a role.

Nick Heath from the World Wildlife Fund told Timothy McDonald that this is a significant problem for a turtle population that's already under pressure.

NICK HEATH: It's an ugly one. We are finding turtles along the coast but certainly in hot spots that have these huge tumours and growths. They're on their heads, they're on their back, they're in their stomach. It hurts them, it incapacitates them in certain ways.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: How does it incapacitate them?

NICK HEATH: It can grow, you know, in ways that cover its mouth, you know, making it harder to feed. It can grow near its reproductive organs. So it may not be a killer blow but these animals are under threat from cumulative pressures and this is just another thing that they have to deal with which reduces their resilience.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Do we have any sense of what might be causing the sudden increase in this disease?

NICK HEATH: Yes, this disease is popping up in other turtles around the world and there could be some correlation with nutrient fertilisers and other kinds of nitrogen pollution. The place that we're picking up a lot of the disease in Queensland is up near Bowen. The area near Bowen does receive a fair bit of flood plume pollution from agriculture, although it's fair to say the jury is still out and WWF is working with a number of Indigenous partners on the ground to conduct research.

We're sort of going out there with a sort of turtle rodeo style project, catching the turtles, making samples, releasing them unharmed, alive, and hopefully that research over the next couple of years will pinpoint the exact cause.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: So the operating theory is that the pollution might cause the animal to become weakened in some way which might make them more susceptible to a virus that might be fairly common anyway.

NICK HEATH: I think that's right. Why the pollution is a problem for these animals is that it blocks out the light to its main food source, being coastal seagrasses. I'm not sure whether you're aware but the coastal seagrass habitats of Queensland in many places have just been wiped out from the floods over the last 12 months.

The floods are full of these agricultural pollutants, the agriculture is responsible for up to 90 per cent of the pollution that gets into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area and it just blocks out the light. The seagrass can't photosynthesise and so it just dies off and that means the turtles are not having the food source they normally get and they lose condition and that's when they're vulnerable to these sorts of diseases.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Last year was a rather extraordinary flood year. Are you hopeful that perhaps this might not be an issue in a few years given that no every year is going to be like last year?

NICK HEATH: Last year was a bad year but unfortunately for these animals, every year is a bad year. The flooding may go up and down, but there are normally still floods in North Queensland and this pollution issue is happening each and every year.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Nick Heath from the World Wildlife Fund speaking to Tim McDonald.

Copyright 2014 ABC Online   (Copyright Terms)
Updated 1036 days ago   Article ID# 1416376

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