The man determined to turn around the Cayman Islands Turtle Farm says a string of new measures are being put in place to secure the facility and address declining turtle numbers.
Boatswain’s Beach/Turtle Farm acting Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer Joey Ebanks says that since his arrival at the farm in early 2007, his attitude towards consumption of the once-bountiful green sea turtle has changed dramatically. Today, there are less than 8,000 turtles at the farm, down from 22,000 to 25,000 in 2001, and a number of factors are to blame.
Mr. Ebanks says he is now convinced time is of the essence in order to protect the animals from suffering an irreversible population decline, and stemming their slaughter is a key component.
While he recognizes the important role eating turtle meat plays in Cayman culture, Mr. Ebanks says he thinks his appeal to cut meat sales is having a positive impact.
‘It seems that people generally seem much less eager to eat it than in the past,’ he said in a recent interview with the Compass.
‘We are seeing reduction in our turtle meat sales revenues, meaning not all the meat is being sold from week to week, it’s being carried over.’
He says that it has also not been a very popular dish with tourists visiting the farm, and his own interest in eating turtle has waned once he realized the scale of the problem.
Another factor affecting turtle numbers was that, despite waning overall interest in turtle consumption, farm staff had discovered that ‘a significant number’ had been stolen.
Mr. Ebanks declined to quantify the number of turtles that had been stolen. However, the farm has also lost turtles in other ways.
‘When Hurricane Michelle came along, we lost a lot of breeding stock out to sea when their pens were washed away,’ says Joe Parsons, the Turtle Farm’s chief scientific officer.
That prompted the construction of the new breeding tank on the other side of the road, now the centrepiece of the turtle display at Boatswain’s Beach.
Under the threat of Ivan in 2004, the Boatswain’s Beach team moved nearly a thousand younger turtles into the main breeding tank, and many have stayed there ever since.
Some of the tanks housing the turtles were not well secured, providing thieves easy access.
‘Once we realized we didn’t have the full complement and significant number had been stolen, we knew we needed to pull our resources together,’ said Mr. Ebanks.
‘We just don’t have any extra turtle meat any more, and the turtles we are slaughtering are bigger and older than in the past.’
Until the herd can be revitalized and the stocks brought up to meet local demand, the practice of releasing large numbers into the wild to support wild population stocks will need to be put on hold.
Since its inception, the Turtle Farm’s release program has released over 31,000 turtles. Animals for release are selected for their good physical characteristics, with some documented success in that turtles released in the 1980s by the turtle farm have been recorded returning to nest in Cayman.
This year, however, he says only five or six yearlings will be released.
‘The reality is that the Turtle Farm is supporting the turtles so they can continue to be consumed in Cayman as a heritage food,’ said Mr. Ebanks.
‘Caymanians want to protect the turtles, and it’s my job to make sure we get it done.’
The Turtle Farm now has K9 security, and Mr. Ebanks says the facility is now installing electronic surveillance and an alarm system.
Other theft deterrence measures are also in place.
‘We are also open later at night and on weekends for such things as maintenance,’ he says.
However, another major key to ensuring the turtles’ survival lies in a new $170,000 international research project seeking to unearth the mystery surrounding low reproduction rates.