Seven green sea turtles that face experimentation and death at a Canadian university research laboratory may have won a reprieve after a UK-based aquarium group offered to take the turtles.
The turtles, which were among 16 sent from the Cayman Turtle Farm to the University of British Columbia in 1998 and 2003, were due to be killed this spring, culminating years of experiments on the animals.
According to local media reports, the university has agreed to give them a stay of execution while details of transferring them to Sea Life Centres, which runs more than 30 aquariums in Europe and America, are finalised.
In exchange, Sea Life Centres, part of Merlin Entertainments Group, has agreed to help locate dying, ill or aged turtles for the university so they can be used for the terminal experiments.
Sea Life Centres spokesman Mark Oakley explained: “We won’t be swapping our own older turtles for the UBC turtles. As we have good working relationships with a number of turtle rescue organisations in Europe and the US, we may, however, be able to help [Bill] Milsom [head of the University of British Columbia’s Zoology Department] meet his needs with the aid of any freshly dead turtles received by these facilities, or any that are fatally wounded or ill and require euthanising.”
Mr. Oakley added: “All our own turtles are in good health, but again – given that the objective would be to increase scientific knowledge to aid conservation efforts, we would not rule out providing UBC and/or other scientists with tissues in the event that one or more of our own turtles were to die or to become so ill that putting it to sleep was considered the most humane option.”
Mr. Milsom told the Vancouver Sun that the university was willing to work with Sea Life to see if the alternative can be arranged. “They are happy to explore it, and we’ll see what comes of it. The bottom line for us is our researchers would still be able to do terminal experiments… not on young turtles, but on turtles that would die anyways.”
The average life span of green sea turtles is not known, but it is believed they reach sexual maturity at about 25 years. According to Mr. Oakley, one of Sea Life’s oldest green sea turtles is 72.
Mr. Milsom has said that killing the animals at the end of the experiments into deep diving depths of sea turtles had been planned since the research began. “The [final] experiments have to be done on a live animal but will result in its death,” he said.
He pointed out to the Canadian newspaper that the turtles would have been slaughtered for their meat anyway at the Cayman Turtle Farm if the university had not acquired them.
The research would help inform fishing policies and aid conservation management of sea turtles in a bid to cut down on the number of sea turtles trapped in deep sea fishing nets.
Mr. Milsom said an estimated 85,000 sea turtles were killed as a result of being trapped in deep nets between 1990 and 2003.
The arrangement has drawn fire from the animal rights group that brought attention to the university’s plan to kill the turtles last week.
Brian Vincent of Stop UBC Animal Research said he is seriously concerned about the proposed arrangement between Sea Life and UBC.
“While we are encouraged UBC wants to find homes for the seven endangered sea turtles, we cannot support any deal that trades one life for another,” he said.
The group says it was tipped off by a university insider about the plans to kill the turtles and alerted the media.
“It is clear UBC is worried about its public image and is trying to save face with this exchange, but shifting the suffering from the turtles at UBC to those from the UK is a deal that is dead in the water for us,” said Mr. Vincent.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, strictly controls the import and export of species on its endangered list. The green sea turtle, along with the other six sea turtle species, is included on the CITES endangered list.
Once the lengthy process of securing import and export licences and approvals from CITES for the transfer of the turtles is done – which could take up to a year – Mr. Oakley said the turtles were likely to be sent to one of the company’s US aquariums in Minnesota, California, Arizona or one in Texas due to open in June. Sea Life would pick up the bill for transporting the turtles.
“We are naturally thrilled that we may be able to achieve a reprieve for these turtles, and if we succeed, they will assist our own non-invasive research into behavioural and other aspects of turtle biology as well as become ambassadors helping raise awareness of turtle conservation needs around the world,” Mr. Oakley said.
Tim Adam, managing director of the Cayman Turtle Farm, said he hoped that whatever arrangement could be made about the seven turtles, that they would continue to be used for educational purposes and to make the public more aware of the need to protect wild sea turtles.
He said he had also contacted the university to offer assistance, but had not heard back.
“What would be really unfortunate is if the validity of the research that has been done so far is compromised,” said Mr. Adam.