Turtle slaughter in WB

Poacher could face prison

Poachers behind the slaughter of a female green turtle that was about to lay her eggs on a West Bay beach face possible prison sentences and hefty fines if caught.

Mark Orr

DoE Marine Enforcement Supervisor Mark Orr shows that the back of the turtle and the calipee were all that remained at the site where poachers illegally slaughtered a female nesting turtle.
Photo: Submitted

Department of Environment Marine Enforcement Supervisor Mark Orr found the bloodied shell of the turtle on a beach in the Sand Hole Road area of West Bay Thursday.

He said it appeared the turtle – estimated to weigh more than 350 pounds – was dragged from the beach into nearby trees, where she was butchered.

All useable parts of the turtle, including an estimated 100 eggs, were carried away from the site, leaving only the shell and calipee (bottom shell) behind.

With DoE surveys showing that only a handful of loggerhead and green turtles nest annually in the Cayman Islands, the slaughter represents a severe blow to local breeding stocks.

Under marine conservation laws, anyone convicted of taking a turtle or turtle eggs faces up to 12 months imprisonment and a maximum fine of $500,000. Courts also have the power to confiscate any equipment used in the offence, including vehicles and boats.

Officer Orr hopes that evidence collected at the scene will identify those responsible for the slaughter. ‘Turtle poaching is the most serious of conservation offences,’ he said.

Anyone with information regarding the incident is asked to call Officer Orr on 916-4271.

According to a DoE press release, the slaughter comes at a time when sea-turtle nesting population in the Cayman Islands are dangerously close to extinction.

‘Each nesting and mature turtle is crucial to ensuring the survival of our vulnerable populations,’ explained DoE Research Officer Janice Blumenthal.

Historical accounts describe the Cayman Islands sea turtle nesting population as numbering in the millions – one of the largest in the Atlantic. Today, Ms Blumenthal explained, only a handful of turtles remain.

Survey data collected by the DoE’s Marine Turtle Research Program over the past nine years show that less than 10 loggerhead and green turtles nest annually in the Cayman Islands.

Furthermore, Hawksbill and leatherback turtles, once known to have nested in the Cayman Islands, appear to have become locally extinct, Ms Blumenthal said.

‘From once representing the largest sea turtle rookery in the Atlantic, the Cayman Islands nesting population has declined to become one of the most endangered, and most urgently in need of protection,’ she said.

According to the DoE, sea-turtles are also threatened by legal turtle fishing in the Cayman Islands. As with several other Caribbean countries with a cultural heritage of catching turtle, Cayman issues licenses to a few local traditional turtle fishermen. However, the annual legal catch limit is more than double the number of nesting turtles in Cayman’s waters.

The problem is compounded by the fact that much of the legal catch is taken during in April, the breeding period for mature turtles.

‘This significantly reduces the number of females making it to shore to lay eggs, and the overall number of adult turtles in our endangered population,’ Ms Blumenthal said.

‘Because the nesting population is so low, the loss of even one adult individual to poachers or to the fishery can have tremendous consequences for the future of the species.’

Keen to emphasise that conservation efforts can be effective, the DoE pointed to Florida, where conservation programmes have helped turtle nest numbers increase from less than 100 in the late 1970s, to more than 4,000 in recent years.

Myth: ‘I see lots of turtles in Cayman; how can they be endangered?’

FACT: We have both young and full-grown turtles in the Cayman Islands. Most people see juvenile turtles when they dive, boat, or fish here. These young turtles are not part of our nesting population – they will migrate elsewhere to nest.

Turtles that nest on our beaches are much larger: A full-grown turtle weighs about 350 pounds and has a shell that is more than three feet long.

There are only a few breeding turtles left in the Cayman Islands. Though a female can lay more than 100 eggs each time she nests, less than 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survives to adulthood.

Therefore, large numbers of young turtles are necessary to support small adult populations.

Myth: Sea turtles stay in the same country all their lives.

FACT: Sea turtles are highly migratory. Every spring, wild sea turtles migrate to the Cayman Islands to nest on our beaches. At the end of the nesting season, these full-grown turtles leave our waters until it is time to return to nest again.

Department of Environment sea-turtle satellite tracking research (http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/cayman) has shown that our adult turtles live in Florida, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua during the winter, when they are not nesting in the Cayman Islands.

How can I help?

  • Report anyone harming turtles or eggs to Department of Environment enforcement officers or the Police.
  • Be sure that turtle meat you order in a restaurant or purchase was obtained legally from the Turtle Farm.
  • Do not drive on the beach: You could crush turtle nests or baby turtles.
  • Install turtle friendly lighting, or turn off unnecessary lights near the beach, from June to November. This prevents hatchlings from crawling toward lights and away from the sea.
  • Do not rake over turtle tracks on the beach. Please call the Department of Environment at 949-8469 if you find a turtle nest or see hatchlings or a nesting turtle.
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