FORT PIERCE - Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute is teaming up with combat veteran divers to study and save sea turtles.

Dr. Annie Page-Karjian, assistant research professor and clinical veterinarian, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, is the co-principal investigator on the project.

“We are studying fibropapillomatosis, which we abbreviate to FP, a disease that turtles get that’s caused by a herpes virus,” Dr. Page-Karjian told Hometown News. “This project in the Keys is an extension of work in the Indian River Lagoon.”

FP is a characterized by skin, eye, and internal tumors that can be fatal.

The combat veterans are with Force Blue, a group that was born during a dive trip co-founders Jim Ritterhoff and Rudy Reyes took to the Cayman Islands in 2015.

Mr. Reyes is a former Marine who had struggled with PTS and depression since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He was trained in underwater warfare, but had never experienced the beauty of diving.

“Here’s this trained combat diver, one of the best, most highly skilled individuals you’ll ever encounter underwater,” Mr. Ritterhoff said. “Yet he’s never seen a fish.”

Mr. Reyes found the recreational diving experience transformative. After discussions with Keith Sahm, general manager of a dive resort in the Caribbean, the three started a program to help veterans and the marine environment.

“We saw it as the ultimate win-win,” said Mr. Sahm, “an opportunity to do some good, not only for our veterans, but for the planet as well.”

They hatched an idea to unite combat veteran divers with conservationists and marine scientists.

“By starting a program that isn’t just about helping veterans or just about helping the marine environment, but about helping both, we’re really uniting two worlds,” said Mr. Ritterhoff.

Harbor Branch got connected to Force Blue through The Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Dr. Page-Karjian has collaborated with The Turtle Hospital for a decade, so when the hospital learned of the veterans’ plans, they made the connection. Also collaborating on the project are Loggerhead Marinelife Center and the Inwater Research Group.

“The cool thing about what we did in the Keys is that we did it in collaboration with Force Blue, which is a really unique organization that offers PTSD rehabilitation,” Dr. Page-Karjian said. “These guys are really special human beings, including retired special ops military. A lot of them are military divers and Navy Seals, and Marines. They work with different organizations doing conservation work, and it’s therapy for them. It’s empowering to help an animal, and we are so grateful for the opportunity to share this experience and our research with Force Blue veterans.”

Dr. Page-Karjian saw an opportunity to expand Harbor Branch’s Indian River Lagoon research involving FP.

“FP is affecting turtles all over Florida. The prevalence of the disease in the Indian River Lagoon in green sea turtles is pretty high. This study is part of a broader effort by Harbor Branch to get a better understanding of harmful algal blooms in the Indian River Lagoon and all over Florida.”

All of the research is conducted with the approval of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Dr. Page-Karjian said, under conditions not harmful to the turtles.

“We’re studying their blood and testing their health, and body condition. We’re also looking at stomach contents, what they’re eating, forage availability, and seeing if we can tie that to their health status, using visual exam and ultrasound. We also weigh them and measure them, and make notes about the tumor severity. We’re also measuring blood samples for toxins that are created by harmful algal blooms.”

“The research we’re doing in the Keys is part of what we’re doing in the Indian River Lagoon.”

The first historical reports of FP involved turtles from the Keys, so Dr. Page-Karjian sees this as a chance to bring the study to ground zero.

“The earliest two reports of this disease in the 1930s were from the very area in the Keys that we’re studying, it’s why we chose that place, and in a turtle in a New York aquarium who had been taken from the Keys. So we think we are basically at the world epicenter for this disease.”

“The Turtle Hospital in Marathon gets many turtles with really terrible tumors, and they think that a lot of them are coming from this one location, which we’re calling a hot spot for FP. That’s one of the things we’re trying to understand.”

The scientists hope to gather comparative data, evaluating turtle health in the Indian River Lagoon, in the Keys, and in Lake Worth Lagoon.

“We hope to start in a fourth site next year, all looking at green turtle health and biotoxins, comparing them geographically and in time,” Dr. Page-Karjian said. “We’re interested in comparing turtles that have and have not been exposed to harmful algal blooms.”

“We think Florida has one of the highest prevalence of FP in the world. We don’t know exactly why certain turtles get it and others don’t. That’s one of the questions that we are trying to answer. We also want to understand what they’re eating, where they’re eating, where they go during algal blooms.”

“I’m working with a shark researcher who’s doing the same analysis, but with sharks and sting rays who have a different diet. Sea turtles are mostly herbivorous, and sharks and sting rays are carnivorous. So we’re trying to get a better understanding of how these toxins work within the food web of the Indian River Lagoon.”

The scientists hoped to also study the effects of microplastics, but that part of the study was delayed due to funding.

“We don’t have enough funding to analyze for microplastics. That’s a goal for next year, to add microplastics to our budget. We hope to get funding to continue the study in the Keys for three more years, and next year we’re hoping to test the turtles for microplastics and chemicals that come from plastics, and heavy metals that we know are in the marine environment, and understand the relationships between the concentrations of those in the turtles’ bodies, and their health status.”

The project in the Keys was funded by Force Blue donors. The project in the Indian River Lagoon is funded through the Harbor Branch Foundation.

For more information about Force Blue or to donate, visit www.forceblueteam.org.

Donations to the turtle protection research of Dr. Page-Karjian should be sent to Harbor Branch. Contact Amanda Nickeson at (412) 296-1852 or anickeson@fau.edu and specify that the donation is for the Page-Karjian lab.

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