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Source: Benchmark Reporter

Severe hike in water toxins leading to unparalleled number of turtles being washed up dead


Posted: June 2, 2015
Originally Published: June 2, 2015

Numerous numbers of small turtles have washed up dead on the eastern part of Long Island last month and scientists are blaming waterborne toxins which are at an exceptional level for reasons that are still unclear.

More than 200 of the diamondback terrapins found on the island’s North Fork region have been examined via necropsy only to discover that saxitoxin, a biotoxin produced in algae blooms that has been found in the water is 10 times higher the normal level. This poison accumulates in shellfish which are then eaten by turtles in brackish bays and estuaries, rapidly causing paralysis and death in them.

Karen Testa, executive director of Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons said, “We’re seeing bodies washing up in perfect condition. This has never happened before. It’s an alarming thing.” She says all signs point towards saxitoxin. “There’s no other explanation for what’s causing the die-off of these poor animals. It’s a horrible way to go,” she added.

A professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences who has studied algal blooms off Long Island for more than 20 years, Christopher Gobler, said saxitoxin is in general detected in the region’s waters, but he has never seen saxitonin this high and nor has it ever caused such a wildlife die-off.

Saxitoxin is produced by red algae blooms which is a “dangerous neurotoxin” capable of damaging or impairing nerve tissue. Shellfish filter the toxic algae cell from the water and when other creatures consume them, they can become paralyzed.

Humans can also be affected by saxitoxins causing shellfish poisoning which usually results in numbness and tightening in the face and a loss of coordination. Patients are known to make full recovery in a couple of days, but rare cases of deaths have taken place. Each year almost 30 cases of poisoning by marine toxins are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An exact number of deaths have not been identified as there is no requirement for health care providers to report the illness. According to the CDC, every 4 years 1 person dies from toxic seafood poisoning.

So far, there hadn’t been any reports of death or illness associated with saxitoxin in Suffolk County, although Assistant Deputy County Executive Justin Meyers said, there is a “long-term potential threat to public health” if the saxitoxin levels persist to increase.

County officials have also warned people against the consumption of shellfish in the region and enacted a shellfishing ban for three creeks and bays along with advising them not to swim in discolored water.

It is believed by Gobler and Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment, that rise in saxitoxin level might be associated with nitrogen in the water caused by leaking septic tanks and sewage making its way into bays. There is no explanation as to why the level are this high compared to before.

Meyers said the county has devised a plan for reducing nitrogen pollution, including acquiring $400 million in state and federal grants for improving wastewater infrastructure. The county also is striving to switch 360,000 homes from having cesspools to using municipal sewers.

According to experts the damage has already done to the eastern Long Island turtle population, and the upcoming breeding and egg-laying season may facing the long-term consequences.

Dr. Russell Burke, the chairman of the biology department at Hofstra University, who also studies turtles on Long Island said, “We’ve seen very few instances like this before. It can take decades to recover.”