Turtle meat restrictions proposed

The Acting Managing Director of Boatswain’s Beach Joey Ebanks wants to see a restriction placed on the sale of turtle meat so it is sold to households only.

A tiny turtle hatchling

A tiny turtle hatchling comes out of its shell in the specially controlled environment at Boatswain’s Beach.
Photo: Cliodhna McGowan

‘I am certainly going to champion it and ask that it be put in place and see if I can obtain the support I need,’ he said. ‘I want to discontinue selling turtle meat to all restaurants.’

At the current rate of release and processing, the turtle farm at Boatswain’s Beach is poised to supply enough for the demand of the market until approximately 2010.

But because of a poor breeding season at the farm this year, and a more immature breeding stock since Hurricane Michelle wiped out much of the original breeders back in November 2001, the farm will not be at a full supply in 2011.

Mr. Ebanks said there is a need to better manage how many turtles are released and used for consumption. ‘So if we take the commercial market out and only cater to the households we will see a reduction in the total consumption.

‘That’s what I’d like to see and that’s what I’m going to attempt to do and whether or not I’m successful we’ll see.

‘Here’s the bottom line: We either take this thing seriously and respect our conservation or we eat them all. That’s the bottom line. Where do we want to draw the line? Anything that we can possibly do through research we’re going to do, but the populace needs to take a stand too.’

The sea turtle is an endangered animal and selling it to restaurants is merely for commercial use, while selling to households is part and parcel of continuing the Cayman Islands heritage of eating turtle meat, Mr. Ebanks said.

‘Turtle meat consumption is still very much a part of the Caymanian heritage and it’s something that I also support.’

Mr. Ebanks said he would also like to see a restriction put on the amount of meat sold to each household, such as a maximum of 10 pounds of meat a week. He added that this potential restriction would not involve the price of turtle meat going up for households.

While the turtle farm at Boatswain’s Beach is a commercial farm, it needs to take some additional steps to help protect the wildlife population, he said. ‘I can’t see how we’re going to be able to do that without putting some additional measures in place to ensure we can account for everything that we sell.

And it will be easier to account for that if they only sell to households with a five pound or 10 pound limit, he said. ‘It’s another step towards protecting the wildlife population.’

This year has seen a slower breeding season at the turtle farm, says General Manger of Animal Programmes at Boatswain’s Beach, Joe Parsons.

Mr. Parsons said, ‘Slow seasons are a part of the natural breeding cycle and often follow a high season as we had last year; this is due to the fact that not all turtles reproduce every year in succession’.

The problem with supply at the farm stems back to Hurricane Michelle. Due to the loss of much of the original breeding herd, reproduction rates are diminished until the younger generation is able to replace the original herd. It can take a turtle between 16 and 26 years before it reaches reproductive maturity on the farm, Mr. Parsons explained.

In 2002 there was no reproduction at the farm in absence of a breeding pond. In early 2003 the new breeding pond was completed and the 89 breeders that survived the hurricane were put into this new facility along with some new immature turtles selected to become a part of the new breeding herd. This brought the breeding herd up to 333.

Since then 64 new turtles have been added to the breeding herd, making 398, with a target of growing the herd to 500 in time for the next breeding season, Mr. Parsons said.

Although the original breeding herd before Hurricane Michelle had 352 turtles in it, most of those were mature turtles. The herd is being grown to 500 now because many are immature and some may not breed yet.

In 2003 there were 963 hatchlings; in 2004 there were 519 hatchlings; in 2005 there were 1,617 (470 survived); in 2006 there were 1,898 (950 survived);

By the end of September this year there were 822 hatchlings (with 20 mortalities), with another few weeks left to the end of hatching season.

Mr. Parsons said, ‘ . . . that’s the worry, that over the last couple of years we haven’t had that increase that we would need to keep up with demand because it takes about four years to raise your turtles up to processing size, so if next year we get a bumper crop they wouldn’t be available for market for about four years.

‘So we’re already behind and at the rate that reproduction has been occurring it’s becoming worrying because those young turtles [in the breeding herd] haven’t kicked in as fast as they could.’

On average at the farm turtles experience a 50 per cent survival up to about four years of age. Most of the mortality is in the first couple of months up to 18 months. ‘After that it decreases, but I would still like to be able to have greater survival than that,’ he said.

It is hoped that next year the numbers of hatchlings will be well up on this year.

Since Hurricane Ivan in 2004 the breeding tank has not been in the ideal state, as some smaller turtles had to be moved there from across the road before the storm and have remained there with the breeding stock. Now that breeding season is over the smaller turtles are being taken out to be put into their own permanent tanks.

Now it is hoped that local corporations may be interested in funding a research study at the farm because of the importance of the turtle to the history of these islands.

Mr. Parsons said, ‘Leading researchers in the field of turtle reproduction have been contacted to conduct research on how to increase reproduction at the farm and a rough draft proposal of around CI$350,000 over a three year period has been received. Low hatch rates and hatchling survival would be the main focus of the study.’

As the only turtle farming facility around, the turtle farm does its own in-house research, but lacks the background or scope of knowledge that crocodile farming, for example, would have. As there are many crocodile farms they can pool their information, Mr. Parsons said.