An already dwindling sea turtle population at Boatswain’s Beach, home of the Cayman Turtle Farm, is seeing the numbers further diminish by thieves.
Not wanting to disclose at this point how many are missing as a result of theft, Acting Managing Director and COO of Boatswain’s Beach Joey Ebanks said, ‘It is a significant amount’.
It is believed that the culprits break into the facility at night and drag the turtles off the premises.
Having stolen a turtle, the thieves most probably say they caught it in the ocean and sell it, Mr. Ebanks said.
‘That wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t a demand too,’ he said.
‘These are the ones that we would slaughter for the turtle meat, so we know that they are being stolen for that. And these are quite big.’
The discovery of the missing turtles was made roughly a month ago when Boatswain’s Beach began to do inventory as part of a forthcoming research programme.
‘We’ve beefed up our security since we initially found out and we’re also going to add even more security to protect the assets,’ said Mr. Ebanks.
‘We didn’t just add additional security guards, we added security canine guards so we have dogs patrolling the pens to make sure they are protected, with additional manpower.’
Cameras and alarm systems are also to be installed and more security lighting is being added.
The park is also open late at night with operations staff cleaning until early in the morning.
‘So rather than clean the lagoons during the day and evenings we begin cleaning them later at night with lights and more people and staff,’ he said.
The neighbours surrounding Boatswain’s Beach in Northwest Point are being very supportive, Mr. Ebanks said. ‘If they hear something, if their dog barks, they check for us and that’s added security aswell.’
As it is, the Cayman Turtle Farm is struggling to keep up with local demand for turtle meat.
In three years time the Turtle Farm will not be in a position to have a full supply for the market. Because of poor breeding seasons and a more immature breeding stock since Hurricane Michelle wiped away many original breeders in 2001, a high mortality rate at hatching and high infertile number of eggs, come 2011 supplies are posed to be in trouble.
However, extensive research is planned to get to the bottom of these problems.
Aside from Christmas, Easter and Pirates Week for households, the main demand for turtle meat comes from restaurants.
Mr. Ebanks noted that the demand for meat has dropped down a little for the restaurant market since there was an appeal made last year by Boatswain’s Beach for them to cut down because of limited supplies.
‘It needs to drop to about once a week, which is ideally where it should be. It is an endangered species,’ said Mr. Ebanks.
There is no high demand from the tourism restaurants for turtle meat, said Mr. Ebanks. ‘They may on occasion try the turtle steak, but predominantly this is a local dish with local demand.’
The farm has come to a point where it just cannot service the household demand peak times anymore, he said.
At Christmas time when demand was at a peak for households, Mr. Ebanks said he had to literally ask people to just take five pounds because they didn’t have enough to supply. ‘Every single person complied and said they understood and took their five pounds and were quite happy.’
He noted, ‘We’re cutting back what we supply but demand is also dropping for us. The public is being supportive and we’re able to see some reduction in the demand.’
But he added that the thefts could have perhaps contributed to a reason why demand for meat has gone down recently. ‘Our demand for meat went down because our turtles were leaving,’ he said.
He urged residents to pay attention to who they are buying their turtle meat from.
‘So, restaurants and households need to be very aware that we’re going to be monitoring this.’
Under Marine Conservation Regulations anyone with a turtle in their possession without being licensed by the Marine Conservation Board to take turtles from the waters is guilty of an offence. Recently amended regulations now also protect sea turtles during a closed season from April to November, rather than from May to October.
Once the Turtle Farm gets through the research it has planned to get to the bottom of why there are high mortality rates in hatching and high infertile number of eggs then naturally they want to be able to supply demand.
‘But we want to be able to make sure that it’s going to be sustainable, that we’re going to be able to produce enough to supply the demand,’ said Mr. Ebanks.
Meanwhile, 12 turtles are to be released into the wild this year, eight less than last year, for the Cayman Turtle Farm’s annual release in efforts to conserve the Green Sea Turtle. Details for the release still have to be worked out.
A new sponsorship package that will allow corporations and even individuals to sponsor a breeder and 10 head-start turtles is being developed. ‘From that we’re looking at being able to allow them to release anywhere between two to four turtles from the 10 that they sponsor. So corporations could sponsor it and at their family functions and environmental day, earth day they can go and release the two into the wild and we’ll tag them as being released by the corporation and put the corporation’s name on it,’ Mr. Ebanks explained.
The sponsorship could help fund the research.
Meanwhile an increase in customer satisfaction has come about at Boatswain’s Beach with preliminary numbers for March having it at 98 per cent, the highest ever at the park.
With an 11 per cent market share, Boatswain’s Beach has targets for the end of 2008 to have a 20 per cent share, by the end of 2009 to have 40 per cent through repeat and new customers. ‘And that’s aggressive but with the right advertising, entertainment on site, product mix and changes in prices it’s very doable,’ said Mr. Ebanks.
The target then would be to peak it to 60 per cent.
The percentages are based on the visitor arrival growth in the Cayman Islands.