Responding to requests from the Salvadoran government and the US Agency for International Development (USAID)for assistance, WCS veterinary pathologist Dr. Julie White journeyed to the southern coast of El Salvador in January to help determine why these ocean-going reptiles--mostly olive ridley turtles and a few green and hawksbill turtles--were dying in such high numbers. Tissues collected from dead turtles, and analyzed by both U.S. biologists and researchers from the Mexican Autonomous University, revealed the culprit: saxitoxin, which is produced by the species of algae and sea plankton that cause the phenomenon known as "Red Tide."
"The rapid response and subsequent diagnosis in this outbreak demonstrates the power of collaboration among governments and non-governmental organizations," said White, who collected tissue samples in January. "We are still testing samples from other turtles that died during this period, but we can say with some certainty that Red Tides first reported in November resulted in widespread sea turtle mortality."
The first reports of these deadly algal blooms came in November along El Salvador's southern coast, followed by reports of humans becoming sick. This was followed by the closure of shellfish beds in the area, a warning from the government against eating shellfish from affected areas, and the first instances of dead and dying sea turtles washing up on shore were reported in the second week in December. Dr. White then performed post-mortem examinations on one of the turtles, while simultaneously training Salvadorian colleagues in tissue collection techniques. Samples were then sent to Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, where technicians then found high levels
Contact: Stephen Sautner
Wildlife Conservation Society