Farm turtles faced depletion by next year

Harvestable turtles at the Cayman
Turtle Farm faced complete depletion by June of 2011 had the traditional
slaughter rate continued.

The revelation was made during
debate on a Private Member’s Motion moved by Leader of the Opposition Kurt
Tibbetts requesting the Turtle Farm Board of Directors and its managing
director to consider returning the cost of turtle meat to the prices in effect
before a large price increase on 8 February.

In responding to the motion,
Premier McKeeva Bush spoke about the economic reasons for the price increase as
well the supply reason.

“If we were to continue harvesting
turtles, butchering them, at the rate of 40 turtles per week – the same rate
that has been in effect for years up until when the price increased – we would
run out of harvestable turtles in the next year and a half, just 18 short
months,” he said.

Although the amount of turtle meat
sold declined immediately after the price hike, Mr. Bush said that since then
the amount of turtle meat sold has increased every week. He said if demand
caused harvest rates to return to 40 turtles per week, then the supply would
have to be cut to 20 turtles per week by June of this year.

Speaking afterwards, Turtle Farm
Managing Director Tim Adam said the reduction of supply could come as soon as
May of this year.

“And that’s going to continue for
at least three to four years,” he said.

Mr. Adam said the dwindling supply
of harvestable turtles was a problem that first started after Hurricane
Michelle’s passing in November 2001. 
Large waves generated by the storm inundated the Turtle Farm, killing
some turtles and washing others out to sea.

“We lost a large amount of our best
breeders,” he said.

Since then, hatch rates of turtle
eggs have dropped considerably, disrupting the “pipeline” that produced
harvestable turtles.

As with any farmed animal, there is
an ideal age and weight for harvesting turtle, Mr. Adam said, adding that the
age is between four and five years for turtles. However, he said that it
generally takes about 10 years to produce breeding turtles.

Mr. Tibbetts’ motion called for the
government to apply a portion of the annual subsidy it gave to Boatswain’s
Beach/Cayman Turtle Farm to cover any losses incurred from selling turtle meat
at the pre-increase prices.

 On 5 February, the Turtle Farm raised prices
of turtle stew meat from CI$5.40 to CI$16 per pound.  Turtle steak increased from $9 to $27 per
pound; turtle menavalin increased from $4 to $12 per pound; and turtle bone
increased from $2 to $6 per pound.

Mr. Tibbetts’ motion stated that as
a result of the price increases, turtle meat had become unaffordable for many
people and restaurants.

“There are those who would very
readily say an apt description for this motion would be that it is a frivolous
one,” he said when introducing the motion. “The fact is that it could have been
made by any one of my colleagues because there has been tremendous
representation to us about the sudden [price] increase.”

Mr. Tibbetts said the Cayman public
had grown accustomed to buying turtle meat and cooking it themselves or buying
from a restaurant.  He said restaurant
owners have told him they need to sell turtle dinners for at least $19 to $21
dollars now. 

“People can’t afford to buy it at
that price,” he said. “This is something our constituents don’t want visited on
them.”

Speaking about another possible
repercussion of the price increase, Mr. Tibbetts said he had received text
messages from people who stated that since they couldn’t get turtle meat from
the farm anymore, they knew where to get it now, a reference to the illegal taking
of turtles from the wild.

“We don’t want to go back to that,”
he said, admitting that poaching was already occurring.

Cayman Brac and Little Cayman MLA
Moses Kirkconnell said he had seconded Mr. Tibbetts’ motion because of
representation from his constituents.

He echoed Mr. Tibbetts’ concerns
that unless turtle meat was affordable, he feared people would resort to
poaching.

Mr. Bush began the government’s
response to the motion by saying he realised turtle was the national dish of
the Cayman Islands.

“But no one can convince me that
anyone is addicted to turtle meat and that they will die if they don’t get it,”
he said. “The way the leader of the opposition is carrying on, if people don’t
have a plate of turtle stew in front of them, the whole island will fall
apart.”

Mr. Bush said the setting of the
price of products sold at the Turtle Farm, including turtle meat, was a management
responsibility and not a shareholders’ decision.  He said management was asked to make economic
decisions that would make the Turtle Farm economically sustainable over the
long term.

“The price should cover the… cost
of producing the product,” he said. “The price the Turtle Farm is now charging
is barely covering the cost.

“Therefore, these price increases
were essential to ensure the sustainability of the Turtle Farm.”

Mr. Bush said if the Turtle Farm
were to go back to selling turtle at the pre-increase prices, the government
would be subsidising restaurants and private individuals who ate turtle.

Price comparison

Mr. Bush argued that the price of
turtle after the price increase was not more expensive – and was in some cases
less expensive – than filet mignon, salmon, rack of lamb and lobster tail, all
of which are purchased regularly in supermarkets and restaurants.

He noted that many countries
produced those other kinds of meats, but the only place in the world that produced
turtle was the Cayman Turtle Farm.

“At $16 a pound, it’s probably the
lowest cost for meat with the same rarity,” he said.

In replying to Mr. Bush, Mr.
Tibbetts said he did not think the comparison to other kinds of meat was reasonable
because the people who ate those kinds of meats generally weren’t the people
who ate turtle.

Although he did not agree that the
price of turtle meat should be increased purely for financial reasons since the
Turtle Farm was already receiving a big subsidy, Mr. Tibbetts said the
sustainability of the herd should be the primary concern.  But rather than increasing the price, he said
the Turtle Farm might have been better off reducing supply or even having a
moratorium on the sale of turtle meat for a period of time.

Mr. Tibbett’s motion was defeated
eight votes to six with independent North Side MLA Ezzard Miller voting in
favour of the motion along with all five opposition members.  Government Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly
left the Legislative Assembly chamber moments before the vote was taken.

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