A report made public Monday reveals findings that allege potentially dangerous bacteria in the waters, crippled turtles as the result of disease and cannibalism and massive long-standing financial problems at the Cayman Turtle Farm.
The report, completed following months of on-site and international research by the United Kingdom-based World Society for the Protection of Animals, makes a case for ending the commercial production of green sea turtles at the facility in Grand Cayman – the world’s only remaining turtle farm operation.
“WSPA has conducted a detailed assessment and has concluded that under its current operational model the farm is; unable to meet the welfare needs of the animals under its care, a threat to wild turtle conservation efforts, a threat to human health and financially unsustainable,” the WSPA report states.
The world-recognised animal rights’ group advised that there are ways for the facility to turn itself into a different kind of operation, focusing on research and rescue of injured sea turtles.
Cayman Turtle Farm officials, responding after a copy of the report was sent to them on Friday by the Caymanian Compass, stated that the WSPA’s effort to shut down the farm’s operations was “incompatible with the WSPA’s claims that the organisation hopes to assist the Cayman Turtle Farm to transition to a model the WSPA finds more acceptable to its aims”.
In their statement, Turtle Farm officials said they met with the WSPA in both Cayman and the UK to discuss concerns. It was through those discussions, the farm managers said, that an independent review of the facility’s operations was agreed to be started in December.
“It has been clearly stated that the decision to alter the business model and objectives of the Cayman Turtle Farm would require a decision by the Cayman Islands Cabinet,” Turtle Farm officials said in their Friday statement, indicating a timeline was agreed to enable further “high-level” discussions to take place.
“The WSPA has instead embarked on a smear campaign to coerce the Cayman Turtle Farm to submit to the WSPA’s demands, despite the fact that their allegations are unfounded, erroneous and sensationalised,” the Turtle Farm statement read.
The Cayman Islands government also released the following statement in response to the WSPA report on Friday: “By calling for a cessation of commercial farming under the guise of concerns over animal welfare, it appears that the internationally-based WSPA is attempting to alter the culture of the Cayman Islands without understanding the history of this small country or its people.
“Moreover, their objective clearly disregards the important role the Cayman Turtle Farm plays in turtle conservation and they appear to be unconcerned about the ramifications that the cessation of commercial farming would have on turtle populations in the wild.”
The WSPA report contains some graphic photos of turtles missing fins, sporting various injuries, even a turtle that was left blind by congenital defects.
The report opined that the Turtle Farm was failing to meet “baseline welfare criteria” for the animals.
Due to proximity of the turtles to one another in the tanks, the WSPA observers noted lesions and diseases “directly related to co-occupant aggression and cannibalism”. Diseases observed at the farm “since its formation”, the WSPA said, included chlamydiosis, grey patch disease and lung-eye trachea disease.
Water quality in the turtle holding tanks was observed to be poor and a diet of mainly fish food pellets was not deemed to be the “natural adult diet” of sea grass or turtle grass as it is often called in Cayman. General neglect and overcrowding of the turtles was also alleged by WSPA observers.
The Cayman Turtle Farm’s statement rejected the WSPA claims.
“We found no evidence of the kinds of injuries or defects among the turtles reared at our facility that the WSPA is listing in its assertions against us,” the statement read. “It should be … noted, that once the WSPA approached the Cayman Turtle Farm with their claims, we immediately initiated a thorough review of our operations, and found no basis for their sensational allegations.
“It is also completely erroneous for the WSPA to claim that we are rearing and slaughtering diseased or defective turtles for meat. Any turtles among the population with congenital defects are humanely euthanised.”
Based on its research, the WSPA stated its belief that the Cayman Turtle Farm represents a “potential threat to human health”.
While the group noted that the risk of infection to healthy humans from wild turtles is relatively low for many pathogens, it also stated that water samples taken from different enclosures at the farm revealed the presence of E coli bacteria, Salmonella and other pathogens.
“Independent water sampling revealed the presence of pathogenic bacterium (Aeromonas, E coli, Vibrio and Salmonella) in the farm’s sea turtle ‘touch tanks’,” the WSPA stated.
The Turtle Farm stated that all animal handling protocols follow US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for handling of reptiles.
“In over 40 years of operation, with hundreds of thousands of visitors to our facility every year and number in the millions in total – all interacting with the turtles resident here, we have not had one single known case of transmission of illness to our guests or our crew members,” farm officials said.
“Prior to the claims by the WSPA, the Cayman Islands government has never been confronted with allegations or claims of evidence of animal cruelty, nor has there been any suggestion whatsoever of risks to the health and safety of visitors who enjoy the attraction,” the government’s statement read.
The Turtle Farm said Saturday that it routinely monitors water quality in its saltwater swimming lagoon with weekly tests conducted by Water Authority-Cayman for faecal bacteria, E coli and enterococci.
“Tests have shown our levels are consistently well below internationally accepted thresholds for safe swimming standards,” according to a follow-up statement sent to the Caymanian Compass on Saturday evening. “As an added precaution, beginning 7 September we started salmonella testing in our saltwater swimming lagoon and saltwater wading touch tank. Both of these enclosures contain young green sea turtles that tourists can either swim or interact with. Results have been mixed. The initial test on 7 September showed no salmonella in our saltwater lagoon and presence of salmonella in the wading touch tank. A second test showed salmonella in both enclosures.”
Farm officials also noted that salmonella is a risk to human health only if ingested.
WSPA representatives also raised questions about whether the marine replenishment efforts of the Turtle Farm, releasing farm turtles into the wild, actually relieved some of pressures of poaching on wild stocks.
“There are significant reasons to believe that it does not,” the organisation stated.
The WSPA opined that “evidence suggests local Caymanians prefer wild turtle meat to farmed meat” and that recent price increases instituted by the farm may have put many Cayman Islands residents out of the market for farm-raised meat anyway.
Moreover, releasing farm turtles into the wild could have a negative impact on turtle populations there if the farm turtles are transmitting diseases, the WSPA report stated.
The Turtle Farm responded by stating much of the scientific data on various turtle breeds could not be obtained anywhere other than the farm itself and that the WSPA “makes light” of the 31,000 turtles released in the wild by the farm over the years.
In particular, 2012 has been a banner year for turtle breeding in Cayman, both in the wild and at the farm, officials said. Some 41,000 eggs have been laid at the Turtle Farm this year with a higher hatch rate than has been seen recently.
The farm is planning a release of 150 turtles later in the year, the farm’s statement indicated.
“To further its own aims, the WSPA, in its goal to shut down our operations, is using every tactic imaginable and attacking all angles of the important work the Cayman Turtle Farm has been doing over the past 40 years,” farm officials stated in the Friday release.
The WSPA made a number of claims regarding the financial sustainability of the Cayman Turtle Farm, which will be reported in a separate story by this newspaper.