By Paige Herrin
Once there was a magical sea turtle named Honupo‘okea. She lived in the waters around the Hawaiian Islands. She was the only sea turtle in the Hawaiian waters until she met a handsome Hawksbill turtle named Honu‘ea. Honu‘ea was magical, too, and they fell in love. They swam to the southern shores of the Big Island and played together in the water along the coast. On the black sand beach of Punalu‘u, Honupo‘okea dug out a nest and there she placed one special egg. This egg was dark and looked like the color of the wood from a Kauila tree. Kauila wood is so strong that it can be used in place of metal and so the parents named the baby Kauila.
After carefully burying the egg, Honupo‘okea and Honu‘ea dug a deep hole next to the nest. They dug so deep that a fresh spring broke forth and filled the hole.
Kauila emerged from her shell with a head as white as the snow on Mauna Kea. She went straight to the pond her parents had created and this is where she made her home. Born of magical parents, she was magical, too. She would change herself into the form of a young girl so she could watch over the children who would play at Punalu‘u Beach. Her full name was Ka Wai Hu O Kauila, which means “rising waters of Kauila.” She would make the spring water from her pond surge upward to quench thirsty children. Children often visited the pond to look for bubbles rising up from the bottom. If there were bubbles, it meant that Kauila was nearby. Kauila is said to be the first and mother of all Hawaiian green sea turtles.
Displayed at Punalu‘u Beach is a bronze plaque that honors the honus (turtles) at Punalu‘u. Children still love to visit Kauila’s pond hoping to catch a glimpse of Kauila’s white head rising from the surface. Unfortunately, what they are most likely to see today is a majestic green sea turtle’s head covered in tumors.
There are seven species of sea turtles in the world and all but two are on the endangered species list. Three of them, the leatherback, the hawksbill and the Kemp’s Ridley, are listed as critically endangered, meaning all subspecies in all areas across the globe where they nest are on the endangered species list. The green sea turtle and the loggerhead have a mixture of “threatened” and “endangered” listings for different locations of subspecies. The Hawaiian green sea turtle is listed as “threatened,” but the line into an endangered zone is only a few hundred miles south, leading to some debate as to whether they should be listed as endangered as well. Green sea turtles travel hundreds and hundreds of miles to mate and nest and it’s difficult to say if North Central Pacific and South Central Pacific green sea turtles don’t intermingle.
One thing that is consistent between the two zones are the tumors turtles in both zones have on their faces, necks, flippers and tails. The tumors are caused by a disease called fibropapilloma and unfortunately, fibropapilloma will render the “threatened/endangered” debate useless as more and more green sea turtles succumb to this disease.
Fibropapilloma is a herpes virus that only affects sea turtles. The virus attacks internal organs, as well as causing fibropapillomatosis, the growth of tumors on the turtles’ faces and extremities. First documented in Key West, Florida in 1938 in a green sea turtle, fibropapilloma has now been reported in six of the seven species of sea turtles globally. The only exception is the leatherback—and collected research does not rule them out entirely due to insufficient data available at this time.
Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) are the most affected sea turtle species and fibropapilloma has been documented in every ocean basin worldwide in which green sea turtles nest. Green sea turtles are found in over 80 countries and are the most dispersed of all the species of sea turtles. This means that a virus like fibropapilloma has circumtropical distribution and is now considered a pandemic. Studying the epidemiology of this disease is difficult and it is estimated that approximately 77 to 85 percent of green sea turtles observed on Maui (specifically, Kahului Harbor) and 49 to 92 percent of turtles observed at Kaneohe Bay on Oahu have fibropapillomatosis. This disease is the leading cause of death for Hawaiian green sea turtles.
There are many notions surrounding why the turtles are being affected so dramatically, but the two most prevalent theories are warming waters and pollution and there are plenty of studies that back these theories.
One 2014 study, which was published in the scientific journal Peer J, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and conducted at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, showed a direct link between the algae that the green sea turtles eat having a higher nitrogen content due to farming and agricultural runoff, or land-based pollutants. The higher nitrogen content is a great food source for invasive non-native algal blooms, allowing the algae to take over, doubling its weight in about two days. The higher nitrogen content causes turtles to store high levels of arginine, an amino acid, in their tissues, which triggers the tumor growth for the grazing turtle population. This food source may explain why the leatherback turtle seems largely unaffected. They eat jellyfish, sea squirts and other soft-bodied animals instead of algae. It is also theorized that warming waters are allowing for the rapid growth of the invasive algae blooms in addition to higher nutrient content.
Although there are many factors involved in causing these magnificent creatures to be endangered, all the reasons for sea turtles to be threatened to extinction point directly to humans. All sea turtles are considered threatened and endangered and three species are considered critically endangered. All because of humans.
Turtles are threatened by direct overexploitation by killing them for meat, eggs and shells, indirect overexploitation by overfishing the reefs and overharvesting the reef vegetation for human food effectively taking the food source away from turtles, destruction of their habitats either by chemical pollution, light pollution, human development of nesting sites, global warming and diseases like fibropapilloma.
Hannah Bernard, executive director of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, knows these turtles and beaches well. “The shorelines of Hawaii have been altered by human habitation,” she said.
There are plenty of conservation efforts underway. Local, state, national laws and international treaties have all been working together to create protected statuses for all sea turtles. Modified fishing gear is required in many areas for commercial fisheries. Many turtles are caught in what is called “bycatch” which is the accidental capture of animals like turtles with other fish. The modified fishing gears are called TEDs, turtle exclusion devices. Using low sodium lights is also beneficial in beach condo and home development. Lights confuse hatchlings and entire clutches of turtles are wiped out unable to make it to the ocean due to light pollution. Many known nesting sites are also closed completely to the public during nesting times. Additionally, efforts are underway for regular monitoring of the turtles by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
It also takes grassroots efforts by individuals on local levels. Kiva Elizabeth, a volunteer with the Farmland Initiative, is one such person, petitioning for laws that would regulate what we use for pesticides in agricultural land. “What we put in the soil is just awful,” Elizabeth said. “It’s a horror what we are doing.”
UH Mānoa Marine Biology Professor Celia Smith, who worked on the Peer J fibropapilloma study, suggests that we really need to look at how we approach the nutrient changes to our reefs saying, “We need to manage aggressively all land-based sources nutrient pollution and to restore the turtle’s native diet,” she said.
For Maui, this is extremely important and the island has recently been gifted a perfect opportunity to really study these changes and come up with policies to manage agricultural runoff. With the production of sugar cane ending, there will be a ton of agriculture land making a transition soon. Before those changes happen, it would behoove NOAA to push for an evaluation of the environmental impact any new agriculture will bring and employ Dr. Smith’s suggestion to create an aggressive management plan.
In Hawaiian mythology, an ‘aumakua is a personal family god, usually a former ancestor, that watches over you. The honu, or green sea turtle, is a popular ‘aumakua for many Hawaiians. As humans, we are often an invasive species that is more parasitic than symbiotic with our environment. Although warming waters and agricultural pollutants appear to be the largest culprit of these tumors, other factors like sunblock, road runoff, sewage and marine biotoxins also play a role in causing the tumors. We have an obligation as individuals to be more careful and more diligent in being responsible with good environmental practices.
The story of Kauila may be folklore, but knowing the folklore plays a significant role in our relationship with our environment. Greg Lind, a Hawaiian storyteller, offers an interesting enlightenment. “These stories are important to share because they create meaningful connections between nature and humans and they unify all things,” he explained.
If the turtle is often an ‘aumakua for families, it is now our job to be the turtles ‘aumakua, otherwise we will lose these mystical, heart-shaped ocean gliders for good.