Although a report released Monday by the United Kingdom-based World Society for the Protection of Animals focuses mainly on general health and humane treatment concerns at the Cayman Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman, the review also sharply criticised the tourism facility’s current business model.
That model, when first established, was mainly focused on the sale of turtle products; not only meat but oils, shells and other products, according to the agency’s report.
When the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was established, such trade outside of the Cayman Islands became illegal.
The WSPA report does admit that a transition from turtle product trade to tourism seemed a logical alternative at the time.
“However … over the last few decades the farm’s own financial reporting suggest that it has consistently represented a significant drain on the Cayman Islands economy,” the WSPA report opined.
Among the financing issues noted in the animal welfare agency’s report:
From 2001-2004, the farm underwent a major tourism-focused redevelopment … at a cost of some US$47.5 million. Complications and “excessive fees” from securing loans for the project have been an “ongoing source of discussion on the Island”.
Loss of assets during 2004’s Hurricane Ivan was significant.
A loan from Cayman National Bank “to the tune of” $8.8 million was sought and obtained in 2006 after the farm “continued to generate significant losses and experienced cash flow difficulties”.
The farm remains heavily in debt with total long-term borrowings of approximately US$55.6 million. Those balances were totalled by WSPA as of June 2010.
“Although international tourism appears to be a logical choice, it is apparent that this income source has failed to resolve the farm’s economic difficulties,” the report stated.
The Turtle Farm noted Saturday in a statement that its finances each year have been audited and reported to the Legislative Assembly as required and therefore no “fresh revelations” were contained in the WSPA report with regard to the operation’s financial issues.
The Turtle Farm responded late last week.
“While the Cayman Turtle Farm is currently not operating at a profit, the business model embraces this redevelopment and expanded mission,” farm officials noted. “In recent years, the Cayman Turtle Farm has cut operating expenditures and overhead costs, and improved revenues while also continually maintaining and enhancing the facility to be a world-class tourist attraction. There has also been strategic business focus on increasing visitor numbers in all sectors.”
The facility noted that it has maintained visitor numbers despite a decline in the overall number of cruise passengers coming to Cayman over the last few years.
“In terms of all attractions, the Cayman Turtle Farm ranks second only to Stingray City,” the farm statement indicated, adding that it served to boost operations of local tours, taxi drivers and retail stores via the sheer number of visitors coming to the Islands.
“Again, we maintain that this approach by the WSPA is in direct contravention of their stated intent to assist the Cayman Turtle Farm in a transition to what they would consider a more financially viable tourism model,” the Saturday statement read. “It seems that they believe they can only achieve this goal by seeking to smear our reputation and sabotage our business.”
Both the farm and the government have stated the report was an attempt to “shut down” Turtle Farm operations that was “completely incompatible” with the agency’s claims that it hoped to transition the Cayman Turtle Farm’s current business model.
“That claim is in itself contradictory given that the WSPA has also claimed that sea turtles cannot be humanely held in captivity,” the farm’s Friday response read.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals states in its report that the Cayman Turtle Farm is the only large-scale turtle farm in existence.
Other attempts at commercially producing sea turtles, according to the organisation, have failed.
“On the Torres Strait Islands, attempts at raising hatchlings of both green turtles and Hawksbill turtles were hampered by high mortality rates of juvenile turtles as a result of factors such as poor food supply, disease and parasites,” the WSPA report noted. The project was terminated in 1980.
On Reunion Island, commercial turtle production was discontinued after international trading privileges in turtle products were revoked, as well as growth and disease issues with the turtle stock. The conservation operation there now, known as the Kelonia Observatory of Marine Turtles, is seen by WSPA as a potential model for the Turtle Farm.
“Kelonia now operates as a sea turtle research and education centre with a major focus on the provision of care for injured and ill sea turtles,” the WSPA report states. The nonprofit venture was partially funded by the European Union and now covers 67 per cent of its operating costs.
The rest is covered by government subsidies.
“Following the transition away from commercial production, it is evident that turtles remain an important element of Reunion Island’s cultural inheritance,” the WSPA report states. “Those involved believe the importance of turtles is stronger today than in the days of farming.”