Skip to main content

To Eat or not to Eat an Endangered Species: Views of Local Residents and Physicians on the Safety of Sea Turtle Consumption in Northwestern Mexico

Abstract

Sea turtles have historically been an important food resource for many coastal inhabitants of Mexico. Today, the consumption of sea turtle meat and eggs continues in northwestern Mexico despite well-documented legal protection and market conditions providing easier access to other more reliable protein sources. Although there is growing evidence that consuming sea turtles may be harmful to human health due to biotoxins, environmental contaminants, viruses, parasites, and bacteria, many at-risk individuals, trusted information sources, and risk communicators may be unaware of this information. Therefore, we interviewed 134 residents and 37 physicians in a region with high rates of sea turtle consumption to: (1) examine their knowledge and perceptions concerning these risks, as a function of sex, age, occupation, education and location; (2) document the occurrence of illness resulting from consumption; and (3) identify information needs for effective risk communication. We found that 32% of physicians reported having treated patients who were sickened from sea turtle consumption. Although physicians believed sea turtles were an unhealthy food source, they were largely unaware of specific health hazards found in regional sea turtles, regardless of location. By contrast, residents believed that sea turtles were a healthy food source, regardless of sex, age, occupation, and education, and they were largely unaware of specific health hazards found in regional sea turtles, regardless of age, occupation, and education. Although most residents indicated that they would cease consumption if their physician told them it was unhealthy, women were significantly more likely to do so than men. These results suggest that residents may lack the necessary knowledge to make informed dietary decisions and physicians do not have enough accurate information to effectively communicate risks with their patients.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Figure 1
Figure 2

References

  1. Aguirre AA, Gardner SC, Marsh JC, Delgado SG, Limpus CJ, Nichols WJ (2006) Hazards associated with the consumption of sea turtle meat and eggs: a review for health care workers and the general public. EcoHealth 3:141-153

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Ariyananda PL, Fernando SSD (1987) Turtle flesh poisoning. Ceylon Medical Journal 32:213-215

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Bernard HR (2000) Social research methods: qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications Inc

    Google Scholar 

  4. Bisogni CA, Connors M, Devine CM, Sobel J (2002) Who we are and how we eat: a qualitative study of identities in food choice. Journal of Nutrition Education 34:128-139

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Burger J, Stephens WL, Boring CS, Kuklinski M, Gibbons JW, Gochfeld M (1999a) Factors in exposure assessment: ethnic and socioeconomic differences in fishing and consumption of fish caught along the Savannah River. Risk Analysis 19:427-438

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Burger J, Pflugh KK, Lurig L, Von Hagen LA, Von Hagen SA (1999b) Fishing in urban New Jersey: ethnicity affects information sources, perception, and compliance. Risk Analysis 19:217-229

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Burger J (2000) Consumption advisories and compliance: the fishing public and the deamplification of risk. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 43:471-488

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Burger J, McDermott MH, Chess C, Bochenek E, Perez-Lugo M, Pflugh KK (2003) Evaluating risk communication about fish consumption advisories: efficacy of a brochure versus a classroom lesson in Spanish and English. Risk Analysis 23:791-802

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Burger J (2005) Fishing, fish consumption, and knowledge about advisories in college students and others in central New Jersey. Environmental Research 98:268-275

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Burger J, Gochfeld M (2006) A framework and information needs for the management of the risks from consumption of self-caught fish. Environmental Research 101:275-285

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Burger J, Gochfeld M (2008) Knowledge about fish consumption advisories: a risk communication failure within a university population. Science of the Total Environment 390:346-354

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Caldwell DK (1963) The sea turtle fishery of Baja California, Mexico. California Fish and Game 49:140–151

    Google Scholar 

  13. Campos E, Bolanos H, Acuna MT, Diaz G, Matamoros MC, Raventos H, et al. (1996) Vibrio mimicus diarrhea following ingestion of raw turtle eggs. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 62:1141–1144

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Caurant F, Bustamante P, Bordes M, Miramand P (1999) Bioaccumulation of cadmium, copper, and zinc in some tissues of three species of marine turtles stranded along the French Atlantic coasts. Marine Pollution Bulletin 38:1085-1091

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Connelly NA, Knuth BA (1998) Evaluating risk communication: examining target audience perceptions about four presentation formats for fish consumption health advisory information. Risk Analysis 18:649-659

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Delgado SG (2005) Local perceptions and ocean conservation: human consumption, exploitation, and conservation of endangered sea turtles in Baja California Sur, Mexico. MS thesis. University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI

  17. Delgado SG, Nichols WJ (2005) Saving sea turtles from the ground up: awakening sea turtle conservation in northwestern Mexico. Maritime Studies 4:89-104

    Google Scholar 

  18. Dewdney JCH (1967) Turtle meat poisoning: the new Ireland epidemic, 1965. Papua New Guinea Medical Journal 10:55-58

    Google Scholar 

  19. Felger RS, Moser M (1987) Sea turtles in Seri Indian culture. Environment Southwest Autumn:18–21

    Google Scholar 

  20. Furst T, Connors M, Bisogni CA, Sobal J, Falk LW (1996) Food choice: a conceptual model of the process. Appetite 26:247-266

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Fussy A, Pommier P, Lumbroso C, Haro L (2007) Chelonitoxism: new case reports in French Polynesia and review of the literature. Toxicon 49:827-832

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Garcia-Martinez S, Nichols WJ (2000) Sea turtles of Bahia Magdalena, Baja California Sur, Mexico: demand and supply of an endangered species. International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade, Corvallis, OR.

  23. Gardner SC, Nichols WJ (2001) Assessment of sea turtle mortality rates in the Bahia Magdalena region, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Chelonian Conservation and Biology 4:197-199

    Google Scholar 

  24. Harris SA, Urton A, Turf E, Monti MM (2009) Fish and shellfish consumption estimates and perceptions of risk in a cohort of occupational and recreational fishers of the Chesapeake Bay. Environmental Research 109:108-115

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Hays G, Broderick A, Godley B, Luschi P, Nichols WJ (2003) Satellite telemetry suggests high levels of fishing induced mortality in marine turtles. Marine Ecology Progress Series 262:305-309

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. INEGI (2005) Anuario estadistico del estado de Baja California Sur. Available: www.inegi.org.mx/inegi/default.aspx?s=inegi&e=03 (accessed May 10, 2009)

  27. IUCN (2009) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available: www.iucnredlist.org/ (accessed March 1, 2010)

  28. Jardine CG (2003) Development of a public participation and communication protocol for establishing fish consumption advisories. Risk Analysis 23:461-471

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Johnson HM (2004) Annual report on the United States seafood industry. 12th ed. Jacksonville, OR: H.M. Johnson & Associates

    Google Scholar 

  30. Koch V, Nichols WJ, Peckham H, de La Toba V (2006) Estimates of sea turtle mortality from poaching and bycatch in Bahia Magdalena, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Biological Conservation 128:327-334

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Knuth B, Connelly NA, Sheeshka J, Patterson J (2003) Weighing health benefits and health risk information when consuming sport-caught fish. Risk Analysis 23:1185-1197

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Likeman R (1975) Turtle meat and cone shell poisoning. Papua New Guinea Medical Journal 18:125–127

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. Limpus CJ (1987) Sea turtles. In: Toxic Plants and Animals. A Guide for Australia, Covacevich J (editor), Brisbane: Queensland Museum, pp 189–194

    Google Scholar 

  34. Liu S, Huang JC, Brown GL (1998) Information and risk perception: a dynamic adjustment process. Risk Analysis 18:689–699

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. Mack D, Duplaix N, Wells S (1982) Sea turtles, animals of divisible parts: international trade in sea turtle products. In: Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles, Bjorndal K (editor), Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp 545–565

    Google Scholar 

  36. Mancini A, Koch V (2009) Sea turtle consumption and black market trade in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Endangered Species Research 7:1-10

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. May H, Burger J (1996) Fishing in a polluted estuary: fishing behavior, fish consumption, and potential risk. Risk Analysis 16:459-471

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  38. Mizerski RW (1982) An attribution explanation of the disproportionate influence of unfavorable information. Journal of Consumer Research 9:301-310

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Morgan MG, Lave L (1990) Ethical considerations in risk communication practice and research. Risk Analysis 12:19-26

    Google Scholar 

  40. Nichols WJ, Aridjis H, Hernandez H, Machovina B, Villavicencios J (2002) Black market sea turtle trade in the Californias. Wildcoast technical report. San Diego, CA, 9 pp

  41. Nichols WJ (2003) Biology and conservation of the sea turtles of Baja California, Mexico. PhD dissertation. University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

  42. Nichols WJ, Safina C, Grossman L (2003) Divine intervention: lobbying the Vatican to save sea turtles. Marine Turtle Newsletter 99: 29

    Google Scholar 

  43. Nichols WJ, Safina C (2004) Lunch with a turtle poacher. Conservation 5:30-34

    Google Scholar 

  44. Oken E, Kleinman KP, Berland WE, Simon SR, Rich-Edwards JW, Gillman W (2003) Decline in fish consumption among pregnant women after a national mercury advisory. Obstetrics & Gynecology 102:346–351

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Peckham SH, Maldonado-Diaz D, Koch V, Mancini A, Gaos A, Tinker MT, et al. (2008) High mortality of loggerhead turtles due to bycatch, human consumption and strandings at Baja California Sur, Mexico, 2003 to 2007. Endangered Species Research 5:171-183

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Pflugh KK, Lurig L, Von Hagen LA, Von Hagen S, Burger J (1999) Urban anglers’ perception of risk from contaminated fish. Science of the Total Environment 228:203-218

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  47. Reinart RE, Knuth BA, Kamrin MA, Stober QJ (1991) Risk assessment, risk management, and fish consumption advisories in the United States. Fish 16:5-12

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Scherer AC, Tsuchiya A, Younglove LR, Burbacher TM, Faustman EM (2008) Comparative analysis of state fish consumption advisories targeting sensitive populations. Environmental Health Perspectives 116:1598–1606

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Senko J (2006) Biology and conservation of the sea turtles of Bahia Magdalena, BCS, Mexico. Unpublished senior thesis. University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT

  50. Sheil D, Wunder S (2002) The value of tropical forests to local communities: complications, caveats, and cautions. Conservation Ecology 6:9

    Google Scholar 

  51. Shimshack J, Ward M, Beatty T (2005) Are mercury advisories effective? Information, education, and fish consumption. Tufts University Working Paper No. 2004-23

  52. Velicer CM, Knuth BA (1994) Communicating contaminant risks from sport-caught fish: the importance of target audience assessment. Risk Analysis 14:833-841

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Verbeke W, Ward RW (2001) A fresh meat almost ideal demand system incorporating negative TV press and advertising impact. Agricultural Economics 25:359-374

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Weihe P, Grandjean P, Jorgensen PJ (2005) Application of hair-mercury analysis to determine the impact of a seafood advisory. Environmental Research 97:201-208

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

Data were collected while J. Senko was a student at the University of Connecticut and interviews were approved by the Center for Coastal Studies. We are grateful for the help of Melania Lopez-Castro in assisting with INEGI data. Morty Ortega, Salvador Garcia-Martinez, Francisco “Paco” Ollervides, and Stephen Delgado provided feedback and encouragement at various stages of this study. Major funding and logistical support for J. Senko was provided by the University of Connecticut and School for Field Studies–Center for Coastal Studies. Lisa Campbell and one anonymous reviewer provided insightful comments that greatly improved this manuscript. Special thanks to the many residents and physicians of BCS who participated in interviews and Julio Solis for assisting with data collection. The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jesse Senko.

Appendices

Appendix 1

Questions asked during semistructured interviews with citizens

Date_______________ Location________________________

Surveyor________________________

Baja California Sur Sea Turtle Survey

We are administering a survey with the aim of knowing your opinions about the importance of sea turtles in the region where you live. Your answers are very important to us and will help us in the development of a community-based communication and education program for the benefit of all. It is not necessary to give us your name and answering this questionnaire will take only a few minutes. Thank you very much!

  1. 1.

    Gender (MARK WITHOUT ASKING)

    [] Male [] Female

  2. 2.

    How old are you? _____________

  3. 3.

    What is your highest level of schooling? __________________________

DID YOU FINISH? [] YES [] NO

  1. 4.

    How are you employed? _______________________________

  2. 5.

    Do you believe that sea turtle is a healthy food source?

[] Yes [] No

PLEASE SPECIFY WHY OR WHY NOT

  1. 6.

    Do you know anyone who has ever had any health related problems associated with eating sea turtle?

[] Yes [] No

IF YES, PLEASE SPECIFY

  1. 7.

    Are you aware of any contaminants, toxins, parasites, etc. that sea turtles may carry? If so, please indicate which ones

Organochlorine pollutants Mercury

PCB’s Infectious virus Fibropapillomatosis

Marine biotoxins Bacteria

The pathogen Chlamydiosis The parasite Learedius learedi

The pathogen Cryptosporidiosis Other (list)

MARK

  1. 8.

    If a doctor told you that eating sea turtle meat was unhealthy because it might contain contaminants, bacteria or parasites, would you continue to eat it?

[] Yes

[] No

[] Maybe

PLEASE SPECIFY WHY OR WHY NOT

Appendix 2

Questions asked during semi-structured interviews with physicians

Date____________ Location_______________________

Surveyor_______________________

Baja California Sur Sea Turtle Survey

We are administering a survey with the aim of knowing your opinions about the importance of sea turtles in the region where you live. Your answers are very important to us and will help us in the development of a community-based communication and education program for the benefit of all. It is not necessary to give us your name and answering this questionnaire will take only a few minutes. Thank you very much!

  1. 1.

    Do you believe sea turtle is a healthy food source?

[] Yes [] No

PLEASE SPECIFY WHY OR WHY NOT

  1. 2.

    How often do your patients tell you they eat sea turtle?

PLEASE SPECIFY TO YOUR BEST ABILITY

  1. 3.

    Have you ever treated any patients sickened from sea turtle consumption?

[] Yes [] No

IF YES, PLEASE SPECIFY HOW MANY TIMES AND HOW OFTEN

(Once per week / Once per month / Once per year / Other - MARK)

  1. 4.

    What were the diagnoses (e.g., E. coli, salmonella, toxic poisoning, etc)?

PLEASE SPECIFY TO YOUR BEST ABILITY

  1. 5.

    Are you aware that regional sea turtles may contain the following health hazards: organochlorines, mercury, PCBs, biotoxins, pathogens, parasites, bacteria or viruses?

[] Yes [] No

IF YES, PLEASE SPECIFY WHICH ONES

  1. 6.

    If your answer to number 5 was “No,” would this information be useful to you and your patients OR would you be interested in receiving more information on the topic?

[] Yes [] No

PLEASE SPECIFY WHY OR WHY NOT

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Senko, J., Nichols, W.J., Ross, J.P. et al. To Eat or not to Eat an Endangered Species: Views of Local Residents and Physicians on the Safety of Sea Turtle Consumption in Northwestern Mexico. EcoHealth 6, 584–595 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10393-010-0280-7

Download citation

Keywords

  • bacteria
  • Baja California
  • Mexico
  • consumption
  • contaminants
  • human health
  • knowledge
  • parasites
  • risk communication
  • risk perceptions
  • sea turtles