Peculiar Marine Life Mortality in the Caribbean

In the last 2 months there has been an unusual amount of sea life washing up dead on the South Caribbean shores of Panama and Costa Rica. The amount of sea turtles is the most obvious and most alarming to the people of these beach communities. There have been 41 Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles reported in Puerto Viejo and 10 Green Sea Turtles in Bocas del Toro. Dolphins, Red Snapper, eels and unusually high amounts of other marine life have also been sited washing ashore in the same time period.

On September 6th an extremely high amount of baby Sharpnose Pufferfish were found on the shores of Drago, Bluff and Red Frog. I personally saw these fish washed ashore while camping at Polo Beach around that time. Similar reports were made by beach-goers and were documented by Gabriel Jacome, a biologist at the Smithsonian Research Center. Jacome confirms that this phenomenon is rather unusual in his experience. Authorities have a few theories as to what could be causing this marine life mortality, but nothing can be confirmed without further analysis and consistent long term documentation.

I also spoke with Cristina Ordoñez, biologist and resident turtle expert of ANAM and she confirms that from September 1st to October 15th, there have been 10 turtle deaths reported to her directly; 1 in Bluff, 3 in Playa Larga, 3 in Zapatilla and 3 in Escudo de Veraguas; all of them are Green Sea Turtles. She has also heard rumors about others that have gone unreported.

Found in Playa Chiquita (Costa Rica) in September.

Found in Playa Chiquita (Costa Rica) in September.

What is startling about these findings is that out of the 10 Green Sea Turtles found, not one of them was an adult. Cristina confirms that this is not normal: “In my 25 years of experience, this is the first time I’ve ever found juvenile turtles dead like this”. One has to wonder- what is the reason behind all of these sea critters washing ashore prematurely?

At first they thought it was an oil spill, but it was quickly ruled out since none of the turtles showed any signs of coming into contact with oil. Cristina explains that if they were all adults, than these deaths can be attributed to targeted fishing, where humans engage in actively (in this case illegally) fishing for sea turtles, but that is not likely since they are all young turtles.

Some are blaming Ciguatera for the recent fish deaths. Ciguatera is a disease that contaminates fish; starting from organisms that consume toxic microalgae and then working its way up the food chain. The algae become toxic from agricultural pollution (fertilizers, pesticides) that is lead into the ocean’s eco-system via irrigation and rainfall. So far there is no evidence that supports that these fish are dying as a result from Ciguatera.
Cristina has been able to perform necropsies on some of the turtles and the results are inconclusive. One turtle was found with a swollen neck and probably died from a blow to the neck. The others that were examined were found with no identifiable internal or external harm.

There is another theory that has been circulating based on a necropsy conducted on a baby green sea turtle found in Puerto Viejo which coincides with a phenomenon that has been documented in the Caribbean before. This turtle was found with a stomach filled with sharp nosed puffer fish (the same fish reported seen on the shores of Bocas on September 6th). Sharp-nose Puffer fish are known to be poisonous and some are speculating that this is the cause of the increased amount of sea life washing ashore.

This particular species is known for having massive spawning events followed by high mortality rates due to the lack of food and space for the new offspring. This has been recorded various times in the last 40 years, in Mexico, Colombia and most recently in Colon, Panama in 2010. The theory is that this region has just experienced a massive spawning of Sharp-nose Puffers and the dead fish that are washing ashore have consumed this poisonous fish, however, this theory has only been supported by one baby Green Sea Turtle found in Costa Rica. Nonetheless, Cristina tells me that she is in contact with biologists that observed this phenomenon in Colon and they are investigating this theory. The most important thing, she says, is that they continue with the documentation and studies of all animals found dead on the shores.

“We have to look at all the possibilities. It could have something to do with the contamination from the banana plantations, but we don’t know. This just means we have to do a lot of studies, so perhaps it’s better that we have the animals to do a necropsies and some samples in order to know with what we can relate this with directly. Not just turtles, but any other dead animal that’s found.”

If you find any deceased animals, it’s very important you contact the proper authorities and, if possible, take pictures. Take three pictures:

1. Take a photo of the turtle next to a flash light, a cellphone, or your foot; anything that can indicate its relative size.
2. A picture of the head (to tell the species)
3. A picture of its tail (to tell the sex)

An example of a "relative size" photo.  Note the flash light.

An example of a “relative size” photo. Note the flash light.

Contact ANAM (National Environmental Authority) at 757-9244 or contact Cristina Ordoñez directly at 6671-5794 and crisespino@yahoo.com.  You can also report any findings to this website: https://sites.google.com/site/caribesurturtlemortalitylog/home. With your help, hopefully the authorities can conclude exactly what is happening to our Caribbean sea life.

Nicholas Corea is the owner and editor of the Bocas Breeze. He wasn't born in Bocas, but he got there as fast as he could. Just one of the many foreigners who became enamored with the enchantment of the islands, his mission is to share the majesty of Bocas del Toro with the world. Nicholas (aka Nick / Nico) has been known to love literature and live music concerts. Nothing makes him happier than when others are interested in this entertaining and informative community newspaper. Mr. Corea would like to send his gratitude to all who read and support the Bocas Breeze; for it takes a village to publish a community newspaper!

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