The Complaints Commissioner has investigated a reversal of a decision by the Marine Conservation Board to stop issuing turtling licences last year.
The board had decided to refuse applications for the annual licences, but that decision was later reversed, leading to a complaint being lodged with the Complaints Commissoner, John Epp, that the board had been interfered with by outside powers.
A summary of the findings and recommendations by the Office of the Complaints Commissioner reads: ‘When the OCC began its investigation, it was revealed that the board had first decided not to issue licenses because it felt the Marine Conservation Law needed to be revised and was concerned that things were not moving fast enough. However, none of the turtlers were informed that this was what was behind the refusal and one of them complained to the Leader of Government Business.
‘This all provoked a meeting with elected members of Cabinet, which is what board members intended, in order to bring government to the table to discuss what it perceived as necessary changes to the law.’
The summary from the OCC, which completed its investigation of the matter in June this year, continued: ‘It was the OCC’s finding that the turtlers had therefore been denied their right to a license in an unfair process.
‘The office also found the portion of Cabinet to be at fault when they called the meeting with the board to address the turtlers’ complaints, deviating from the proper route governing appeals against any decision made by the board. By calling the meeting with the board, the members gave the appearance of wrongly interfering with the process.’
The OCC recommended that the board follow the rules of natural justice when making decisions and accurately state the reasons for them.
It also recommended that elected members of Cabinet follow the process as stated in the relevant legislation – Section 28(1) of the Marine Conservation Law (2007 Revision). This states that ‘Any person aggrieved by any decision of the Board, may, within 10 days of the receipt of notification of that decision, appeal against it to the Governor [in Council] whose decision shall be final and binding on the appellant.’
Board members contacted by the Compass would not comment on the case, saying they were prohibited by law from speaking about an OCC investigation.
‘Poachers are the problem’
Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said only a small handful of licences were renewed each year, and those licences were not fully used by the licencees.
He said changes to the Marine Conservation Law meant that nesting turtles were better protected.
‘The problem is with the poachers,’ he said, adding that he believed only about half a dozen turtles were captured yearly by licencees.
‘The poachers probably take 10 or 20 times that number,’ Mr. Tibbetts said.
Conservation advocate Billy Adam argues that the turtle fishing industry is unsustainable, as turtles are endangered and their population continues to fall.
Fourteen licences were issued for last year’s turtling season. According to the DoE, so far this year, no licence application renewals have been received for the upcoming season.
DoE figures, as of Friday, showed approximately 145 nests of green sea turtles and loggerheads were found on Grand Cayman in the current nesting season. Each nesting green turtle can have up to six nests and loggerheads can have three, meaning there are about 30 nesting turtles in Grand Cayman.
Changes were made to the Marine Conservation Law this year that shorten the length of the turtling season from six to four months; reduce the maximum size of turtles that can legally be caught; and lower the number of turtles each turtler can capture.
Under the revised regulations, no more than four turtles can be caught during the turtling season and only green sea turtles and loggerheads can be taken.
The closed season now runs from April to November. Previously the closed season for turtle fishing was from May to October.
For the first time, a maximum size limit has been set for the legal capture of turtles, which should legally prohibit the capture of mature nesting turtles. Turtles over the maximum allowable size of 24 inches of curved shell length or under the minimum size of 16 inches of curved shell length cannot be taken.
The regulations also ban the use of any spearing device or any affixed net, such as swing or set nets.
Also, turtles cannot be taken along West Bay Beach or in George Town Harbour, or in any of the bays or sounds inside of the reef crest.
It is illegal to harm turtles or their eggs. There is a maximum penalty of a fine of up to $500,000 and one year imprisonment.
Department of Environment research puts the nesting turtle population in the Cayman Islands to around 30, down from the millions cited in historical accounts.