Scores of adoring children, beaming tourists and proud residents flocked to the shores of North Sound on Sunday in Grand Cayman to support the latest instalment of replenishment efforts for turtle stocks in territorial waters after centuries of overfishing drove the iconic species to the brink of extinction.
Coinciding with its normal place on the calendar during the annual national festival of Pirates Week – although occurring a week late due to poor sea conditions – visitors and residents in the Cayman Islands took turns releasing 150 yearling and advanced hatchling green sea turtles beneath sunny afternoon skies during the 32nd annual release by the Cayman Turtle Farm.
Last weekend’s event featured the largest number of turtles released in years, as the breeding farm facility and major tourist attraction in West Bay reported a record number of eggs laid and an increased hatching rate. One by one, and in steady succession, captive-bred farm-raised turtles were off-loaded from a truck that delivered them from the Turtle Farm to the beach adjacent to North Sound Golf Club and then carried to water’s edge by eager participants and placed in the sand to be taken into the warm Western Caribbean Sea by the surf.
“Standing here at the seaside, releasing a fresh group, is the ultimate expression of the Cayman Turtle Farm’s conservation mission,” said Tim Adam, managing director of the Cayman Turtle Farm: Island Wildlife Encounter. “As these baby turtles cross the sand, enter the water and start new lives in the sea – it is an awesome moment that gives us hope for the future. Hope that the wild population will continue to grow and flourish with our help.
“With releases such as this one, the Cayman Turtle Farm is boosting native stocks and helping to rebuild a wildlife population that in the past had become almost completely depleted,” he said.
The yearlings were fitted with micro transponders encased in a glass housing about the size of a large grain of rice. These electronic tags are injected under the skin and can be detected with a scanner. These and other types of tags allow researchers around the world to identify individual animals and better understand migration and nesting patterns.
As part of the programme, turtles are quarantined and reviewed for any disease or defect before release, Mr. Adam said. Yearlings also take part in a process known as “headstarting”, which prepares them for life in their natural habitat by replicating conditions in the wild prior to release.
“In the past, our released turtles have roamed as far as Central and South America, and even up to Florida,” Mr. Adam said. “This says something about the amazing instincts, habits and traditional ranges of these turtles, and demonstrates one of the ways that our conservation efforts benefit the turtle populations of many countries.”
Since 1980, the Cayman Turtle Farm’s release programme has placed more than 31,000 green sea turtles into the wild in an effort to help replenish a vastly diminished population of reproducing turtles. Hundreds of years ago, the Cayman Islands supported a huge green sea turtle rookery and one of the largest populations of the species in the Caribbean.
Turtle fishing later came to form the basis of the local economy and culture of the Cayman Islands by providing a rich food source and a means of livelihood for many for centuries. But the level of fishing was ultimately unsustainable and the once abundant numbers of turtles dwindled to merely a shell of their former selves, though exact figures of those remaining are hard to come by.
“Releases such as this one may seem a step too small to really make a difference,” Mr. Adam said. “But the returns are gradually becoming known. This year has been a record year for wild turtle nests in the Cayman Islands, and observations by the Department of Environment have shown that as many as 14 tagged females released by the Cayman Turtle Farm 25 to 30 years ago are returning to our shores to lay their eggs.”
The Turtle Farm hasn’t been without its critics though – especially of late.
The Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy and the London-headquartered World Society for the Protection of Animals have urged the Cayman Turtle Farm in recent months to stop farming a species designated as endangered. Critics also say there is limited evidence that the release programme has helped grow turtle populations over the years and suggest releasing farmed turtles could pass on diseases to the species in the wild.
Earlier this year, WSPA released a scathing investigation claiming the Turtle Farm had failed to meet baseline welfare criteria by citing video and photographs purporting to show turtles in overcrowded and dirty tanks, as well as turtles missing fins, sporting various injuries, and even one left blind by congenital defects. The advocacy group maintains that some of the sea turtles have resorted to cannibalism in their enclosures and may pose threats to humans by potentially passing on E coli, salmonella and enterococci to visitors who handle and interact with the creatures at the tourist facility.
Moreover, the Turtle Farm has come under increasing pressure within the Cayman Islands as many residents have grown concerned over a business model that has operated in the red for several years and requires millions of dollars of recurring government subsidies to remain afloat.
“As many of you know, these are trying times for the Cayman Turtle Farm,” Mr. Adam said. “Our methods and indeed our very existence are being questioned. But let me say this in our defence – the Cayman Turtle Farm is the only facility of its kind in the world, and offers Caymanians much to be proud of.”
In response to the welfare advocacy groups’ claims, Turtle Farm officials say it only releases healthy turtles into the wild and is adamant the facility follows internationally accepted animal husbandry practices. The Turtle Farm also has agreed to undergo an independent evaluation next month.
Nevertheless, those issues were far from the forefront during the release as smiles and laughs were aplenty and the order of the day was clearly on boosting the declining numbers of sea turtles. Today, according to the Department of Environment, there are fewer than 30 adult female green sea turtles nesting in the Cayman Islands each year. Recent studies by the Cayman Turtle Farm of satellite-tagged released turtles show them adapting well to their new habitat and roaming widely throughout the Caribbean region.
Since Hurricane Michelle decimated nearly 80 per cent of the Cayman Turtle Farm’s breeding stock in 2001, the farm has been working to grow its turtle population and is reaching the point where increased numbers of turtles may be released into the wild.
This weekend’s release was just the latest high-profile effort by the farm to help foster growth and research of a species whose legacy features so prominently in the Cayman Islands – in its currency, national seal and flag, to name a few.
In June, the Turtle Farm released a 60-year-old, 600-pound male dubbed “Sir Thomas Turtleton” who had been part of the facility’s breeding stock for three decades to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Sir Thomas Turtleton was the second member of the farm’s “Tag and Track” release programme which was inaugurated in February with the release of a captive-bred juvenile named “Jerry”, the facility’s first satellite-tracked turtle.
A year ago, 50 green sea turtles, including hatchlings – 3 months old and younger – were released during the Pirates Week festivities. Prior to that, during recent years the farm has released 10 to 15 juvenile turtles.
“Through our conservation efforts, the Cayman Turtle Farm is making a difference here and in the world around us, and that is something all of Cayman can be proud of,” Mr. Adam said.