A panel of marine conservation and sea turtle specialists who inspected the Cayman Turtle Farm in December have called for improvements in the standard of care for the turtles at the tourist attraction in West Bay.
The four inspectors found that there was “clearly room for improvement in standards of care, which will require immediate changes in infrastructure, processes, staffing and resources to rectify”.
The panel members said that key among their concerns were “the incidence of skin lesions and mortality levels” in younger turtles and called for the immediate implementation of additional intensive treatment and management of all animals with lesions, euthanasia of animals with poor prognosis and for veterinary pathological investigations of dead animals.
In their report, which was submitted to the Turtle Farm on 17 December, the experts pointed out that similar recommendations had been made in the past but have not been acted upon.
Turtle Farm managing director Tim Adam said the farm was taking the report’s findings “very seriously” and was acting on the recommendations.
Among the recommendations was the need for a full-time veterinarian at the farm and improvements to how the Cayman Turtle Farm staff treat lesions on the turtles.
Mr. Adam said the facility in Grand Cayman is in the final stages of recruiting a vet and that the recommendation concerning turtles’ lesions was “already being pursued”.
The inspections were carried out following a damning report on the Cayman Turtle Farm last year by the World Society for the Protection of Animals. That report stated: “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”.
Despite the WSPA’s concerns, Cayman Islands Premier Juliana O’Connor-Connolly said Thursday that she had received assurances from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office that it would not become involved in the dispute. The WSPA report stated that pathogenic bacterium, including Aeromonas, E-coli, Vibrio and Salmonella, were present in farm’s sea turtle touch tanks and posed a threat to the health of visitors picking up and touching the turtles.
However, the independent inspectors said they found no evidence of any threat to the health of the public.
The report made other, more positive findings. It concluded that the Cayman Turtle Farm had a “positive conservation impact” because it provided turtle meat to consumers, thus alleviating poaching of the wild population; augmented the local turtle nesting population through past turtle releases; enabled applied research of the animals over four decades; and increased awareness of marine turtle conservation.
The panel recommended that an independent advisory board of scientists and managers from the Cayman Islands and overseas be set up to help the Cayman Turtle Farm reach the long-term and short-term goals set out in the report.
Mr. Adam said the Turtle Farm would be re-establishing an advisory board to oversee, support and make recommendations on its operations.
The four experts, George Balazs, Annette Broderick, Brendan Godley and Thierry Work, visited the Cayman Turtle Farm over three days on 10, 11 and 12 December and reached their findings after examining the facilities, meeting with staff and management and observing the turtles, including how they were slaughtered.
They found that a “notable proportion of animals had quite severe skin lesions that included deep ulceration to the shoulder, forelimbs, head and hind limbs” and the mortality levels among younger turtles are “high and require intensive veterinary and management intervention”.
They also found potential emerging conditions, such as enteritis – intestinal inflammation – in three animals necropsied during their investigation.
The panel acknowledged that there are processes in place to address existing lesions and ongoing mortality, but those need to be “intensified, enhanced and their efficacy assessed”.
They also found that several of the animals were “moderately emaciated”.
While they did not find any hazard to the health of visitors in the tank water, as the water quality of the tanks within the public area appeared clear, the water for the larger juveniles in the production area was “quite turbid”.
“In the absence of recorded skin lesions/mortality, the level of hygiene/water quality as observed would not be cause for concern. Given the health issues above, however, improvement of water quality both entering and exiting the farm has to be considered as part of a management plan,” the report stated.
The investigators also called for the Turtle Farm to look into how many turtles are held together in the tanks, saying that the high stocking density on the production side should be considered as a factor in the mortality rates among the young turtles and the presence of lesions.
While the WSPA report had included a photograph of a turtle with no eyes – seemingly evidence of congenital deformities among the turtles at the farm – the investigators said they did not observe any congenital deformities.
The investigators described the slaughter methods and practice at the farm as humane and hygienic. “The process does, however, seem to afford an under-utilised opportunity for gathering supplementary data for health monitoring and management of the herd,” their report read.
The panel also called for an annual inspection of the Turtle Farm facilities by an accreditation institution or by the Cayman Islands Department of Agriculture.
Concerning the supply of turtle meat, the investigators said: “CTF cannot currently meet all demands and should consider prioritising selling meat to Caymanians. At present, meat is only sold at the CTF. Consideration should, however, be given to selling at other outlets to reach more remote locations on the Island.”
The report also addressed concerns about the releasing of potentially diseased farmed turtles into the wild and pathogens contained in effluent from the farm being pumped into the sea. “Although no evidence of deleterious effects have been documented in wild turtles, we recommend that, in future, all animals released into the wild receive a veterinary certificate of health in conjunction with the health recommendations detailed above,” the investigators said.
The panel also encouraged the Turtle Farm to continue being involved in scientific studies to better the biology of green sea turtles. “Many of these studies have been in collaboration with externally based researchers and have resulted in a plethora of high quality publications,” the report read.
In conclusion, the report authors said: “Given sufficient desire and motivation on behalf of managers and decision makers, the panel concluded that the recommendations in this report are fully achievable, thereby ensuring the long-term health of the turtles that are such an important part of the heritage of the Cayman Islands.”