Get to know the Sea Turtle

As much as 3,800lbs of feed is munched up daily by a herd of about 11,000 turtles at Cayman Turtle Farm in West Bay.

This is just one of the interesting facts passed on by staff at a recent tourism partners and media orientation at the relocating and expanding Cayman Turtle Farm/Boatswain’s Beach project.

The management’s belief is that tourism partners and the public should be kept informed of progress and how operations work at the Turtle Farm in order to have a certain knowledge to pass on to inquisitive tourists.

Farm History

What began as Mariculture Ltd. in 1968 has now grown into a huge tourist attraction and successful commercial farm. It was first located at Salt Creek inlet in the North Sound and then relocated to the current Goat Rock area in the early 1970s. The company was re-named ‘Cayman Turtle Farm’ in 1975. The Government purchased the farm in 1983 and it became known as Cayman Turtle Farm (1983) Ltd.

It is the only farm of its kind in the world commercially breeding the Green Sea Turtle. Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Kemps Ridley turtles are also kept for display. The founder stock of turtles came from Ascension, Costa Rica, Mexico, Guyana and Suriname, as well as purchased from Cayman turtle schooners.

Sea Turtles are one of the oldest animal species on earth, and are believed to have been around since the age of the dinosaurs. Sea turtles are also very long-lived – with life-spans up to 150 years old.

The conservation of wild sea turtles is a global issue. In the Cayman Islands and some other countries, limited turtle hunting is legally allowed as part of the cultural heritage.

Turtle Species

There are seven species of sea turtle worldwide, but The Green, Loggerhead and Hawksbill Sea Turtles are the species most commonly found in the waters of the Cayman Islands. A mature wild Green or Loggerhead turtle can weigh 300 to 400 lbs in the wild (farmed Green turtles can weight up to 500lbs). Hawksbills can weigh up to 120lbs. The Kemps Ridley is the smallest and rarest of all sea turtles. They have the most restricted range of all turtles (Gulf of Mexico and some East coast).

Sea Turtles are fast reducing in many parts of the world due to hundreds of years of over-harvesting. They cannot reproduce fast enough to keep pace with their losses. Turtles can also take a long time to mature (up to 30 years) and survival rates to adulthood can be very low (about one in 1,000).

A major threat to the survival of the species is the shrimping industry, explained Geddes Hislop, Terrestrial Exhibits & Educational Programmes. Thousands of turtles are drowned every year when indiscriminately caught in shrimp trawler nets. Use of Turtle Excluder Devices on shrimp nets can help significantly reduce this impact. Other threats include: long line fisheries, nesting habitat loss due to commercial beach development, getting entangled in sea litter like plastic six-pack rings and discarded fishing lines and nets, and consuming improperly disposed non-biodegradable trash.

Sea turtles in the wild are also threatened by a disease that causes tumours to grow on the turtle’s skin and internal organs so they cannot breathe, eat, see or swim. This is affecting populations all over the world, and there is no known cure.

Turtle Farm Operations

At Cayman Turtle Farm, turtles are fed three times a day on a high protein floating pellet containing grains, soy and fishmeal. Complete water turnover in all the tanks takes place each hour. Over 20 million gallons of salt water is pumped through the farm every day.

The breeding pond is 12-feet deep and holds approximately 400 turtles. The smaller commercial tanks are three feet deep and are stocked according to turtle age and weight.

The Turtle Farm holds an annual turtle release each year to help replenish wild turtle stocks. Over 30,000 have been released since 1980. The next release will be held on November 2. Farm released turtles have been recorded travelling up to 31 km (19 miles) per day. One turtle was reported in Honduras within 18 days of release.

Turtles released by the farm in 1985 and 1988 began returning to nest on Grand Cayman in 2002. They were identified by the living tag system developed at the farm. The most recent Living Tag returned in early August 2005. Mr. Hislop explained that this tagging method involves the auto grafting of a small, white dot of belly shell onto the turtle’s dark coloured back. This is done when the turtle is only a few days old. As the animal grows, the dot grows with it.

Farmed turtle meat is produced for local consumption. This takes pressure off wild stocks and contributes to the conservation of Cayman’s wild sea turtles, said Mr. Hislop. Commercial turtle farming supplies turtles for turtle products, for their release into the wild to re-populate the species and for research, he explained.

Breeding

During the course of the breeding season, a female farm turtle can lay up to 10 nests, each with up to 150 eggs. Farm turtle eggs are collected from nests laid in the Breeding Pond beach and packed between layers of beach sand in Styrofoam boxes. The table-tennis ball-sized eggs hatch in about 60 days. The turtle nesting season in Cayman is from late April/early May to late October (farm turtles follow the same pattern).

Sex of the turtle hatchlings depends on the incubation temperature. Cooler temperatures produce all males, warmer temperatures produce more females. Hatchling mortality in the farm is around 42 per cent, less than half the estimate for wild born hatchlings.

Farm turtle hatchlings can grow to about six pounds during the first year. They will then be transferred to larger yearling tanks to avoid overcrowding. At this stage they may grow up to 20 pounds in their second year.

Farmed turtles are harvested for meat at four to six years old at between 60 to 80lbs. Each turtle produces approximately half its body weight in edible meat products. Preserved and polished turtle shells are also sold. Before international sales were restricted, other turtle products in the past included leather, turtle oil and turtle shell jewellery.

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