Turtle herpes virus could make its way up the East Coast

Bailey, a green sea turtle struck by a boat, was treated at the South Carolina Aquarium for a herpes virus among other problems. The turtle has returned to the sea.

Bailey was a wreck when the green sea turtle was found floating in a tidal creek.

His beak had been all but knocked off, struck by a boat or propeller. The turtle was crawling with worms, leeches and barnacles and its left eye was out of kilter. But it gets worse. Bailey was the first sea turtle at the South Carolina Aquarium’s rescue facility to be diagnosed with a herpes virus that apparently has spiked in the last year among turtles in the Florida Keys.

More sea turtles are turning up sick as the seven threatened or endangered species begin to mount comebacks, and are sick with a wider variety of diseases. Researchers now are puzzling out whether it’s really an increase in diseased turtles or simply a matter of more turtles in the water meaning more disease is going to be diagnosed.

The herpes virus, fibropapillomatosis, tends to turn up mostly among green sea turtles. It can range from a mild tumor on the skin to a cluster of internal and external tumors that cripple the turtle’s ability to feed, swim or see. It has occurred in the Gulf of Mexico population for years, where biologists have tracked a steady increase.

But in 2015, “the numbers here really blew up,” said Marathon, Fla., veterinarian Doug Mader, who works a sea turtle rescue program there and at one point was operating on six to eight turtles per week for the tumors.

“We had two times as many as we did in 2014,” he said.

As with any marine disease nowadays that emerges or becomes more prevalent, the science has suggested a lot of potential causes. Two of them that researchers keep finding grounds for are warming seas and pollution. That could mean more cases of the virus will occur here.

“As temperatures increase up the East Coast, it will follow,” Mader said.

Greens are found less often in South Carolina than Florida. Only two laid nests in 2015, compared with 5,106 loggerhead sea turtle nests, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. But the disease also has turned up among loggerheads, too.

For South Carolina, fibropapillomatosis now joins debilitated turtle syndrome and septicemic cutaneous ulcerative disease among turtle maladies turning up more often with the causes not fully understood.

Debilitating syndrome is nothing new, but more turtles, and younger turtles, have been admitted to the aquarium’s facility with it in recent years. The syndrome is a condition in which turtles show up lethargic and not eating. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries researchers have been documenting the turtles’ exposure to man-made contaminants that have been tied to it.

The ulcer disease is essentially skin rot, and like debilitating disease and the virus, can be deadly when it shows up in turtles. In 2011, the South Carolina Aquarium facility saw the number of turtles admitted with it spike after years of seeing maybe one, maybe two. It continues to show up among turtles admitted.

As for the herpes virus, aquarium veterinarian Shane Boylan thinks it’s brought on when the turtle is weakened by something else. The good news is that if a turtle has it and recovers, the turtle is thought to be immune for life.

“If the animal is in good shape it will make it,” he said.

Bailey was operated on to remove small tumors from his fins during treatment for his injuries. The turtle is blind in one eye, with a shank missing from its upper beak, but became adept at locating food and eating it at the facility. Bailey is now back at sea.

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