Hawksbill Turtle Swimming
Photo courtesy of Carolyne LaCerte
Ocean pollution is a critical marine health concern and a major threat to marine ecosystems. Chemical pollution, in particular, broadly threatens marine species at levels of individuals, populations, species, the ecosystem and globally. Climate change, particularly coastal and ocean acidification, threatens to greatly increase pollutant concentrations and their impact in marine ecosystems. Thus, the long term objective of our research is to develop a model system for understanding marine pollutant impacts and how climate change might alter these impacts. The short-term research objective is to develop this approach focusing on Vieques, Puerto Rico. All sea turtles are endangered and their populations are declining at an alarming rate including those in Vieques (1). Recent data show that metal levels are elevated in sea turtles, though turtles in Vieques have not been studied (2). Thus it is possible that environmental pollution may be impairing the reproduction of sea turtles or causing cancer in them by damaging their DNA. To address this question, we are studying metal pollution in the marine ecosystem in Vieques.
Our research focuses on marine sea turtles and develops baselines of metal levels and DNA damage (i.e. genotoxicity) in them that can be used to measure the future impacts of climate change or ecosystem disturbance. Genotoxicity is a required hazard characterization in human risk assessments, because of the severe threat it poses to individuals and populations. Thus, by measuring the level of DNA damage in the turtles, we gain insight into the potential effects of the metals. We will also consider samples of soil, water and prey collected near turtle sampling locations to gain insight into exposure routes. Thus, when complete our study will provide important insights into metal pollution in the Vieques marine ecosystem; and we will have developed an approach that we can apply more broadly in future studies.
1. IUCN/SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group. (1995). A global strategy for the conservation of marine turtles. UICN, Cambridge CB# ODL;UK.
2. Gardner SC. Fitzgerald SL. Vargas BA. Rodriguez LM. Heavy metal accumulation in four species of sea turtles from the Baja California peninsula, Mexico. BioMetals 19(1):91-9, 2006.
We collaborate in Vieques with a local non-profit institution there, the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust and with the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife office.