Becoming involved in the World Society for the Protection of Animals campaign to help change the Cayman Turtle Farm for the better was a very difficult decision for me to make, both as a proud Caymanian who takes national pride in our heritage as great turtlers, and as someone celebrates our improved understanding of the needs of the animals we have in our care.
Now I’d like to talk about how and why we got here.
After calls from its supporters, WSPA began an investigation of the Farm in 2011 and their experts confirmed, as has been recently accepted by the CTF, that there are problems.
In May last year, WSPA approached the farm with its findings asking for them to investigate and implement appropriate changes. Sadly, several deadlines were missed, which put WSPA in the difficult position of considering a public campaign to encourage the CTF to think again. This was something that they preferred to avoid, instead hoping to work WITH the farm on a journey of transition to a purely rescue, rehabilitation and conservation facility. Such a transition had been successfully made by the only other remaining turtle farm in the world, Kelonia, in the Reunion Islands.
Unfortunately, while these deadlines were passing, 299 turtles died in a tragic incident at the farm that was not disclosed to the public until the story leaked and was covered by this paper more than two weeks later. This apparent cover-up disturbed WSPA greatly.
Shortly thereafter, it became apparent that the Farm would not engage in further discussions with WSPA and WSPA were left with no choice but to begin a campaign, for which support was quick and strong.
When established as Mariculture in 1968, the farm had a strong business model with an equally strong conservation mandate. But this was some 45 years ago, when our global understanding of animal welfare was very different from today. We were still buying ivory without guilt, battery farming chickens and most importantly, the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species had not restricted trade in all parts of the green sea turtle.
However, in 1979 CITES ruled that turtle’s bred in captivity could not be traded. This happened just as the Farm announced that its captive breeding programme had successfully produced its first generation of turtles. With the loss of the majority of its international markets, the company’s economic model collapsed.
As turtle numbers at the Farm increased through the breeding program, but now without the ability to export turtle products, the conservation efforts faltered due to lack of income. To cut a long story short, Mariculture’s business model quickly fell apart and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1975. It was then purchased by the Cayman Islands Government in 1983 and renamed the Cayman Turtle Farm.
Not much has changed in terms of the economics of the farm since then, except that in an effort to boost income, the CTF poured another $60 million into developing the Boatswains Beach attraction and is now subsidized by $8 million to $10 million each year. In response to those who have asserted that the management of the CTF is at fault for the current financial crisis, I would say that it is the business model at fault rather than the individuals charged with running it.
But what now? Many people both in Cayman and elsewhere in the world, myself and WSPA included, believe that the turtles at the CTF are not being adequately cared for. To intensively farm a solitary, migrating, deep diving animal that has not been selectively bred for captive, herding conditions is out-dated and cruel. Turtle farms around the world have ended farming practices in part because they cannot meet the welfare needs of these animals and farm them in an economically viable way.
Another important contributing factor is the dwindling demand for turtle meat, and this is extremely relevant to Cayman. Slaughter numbers at the farm reflect a reduction in demand from the local market. Plus, a recent survey of visitors to the CTF showed that a vast majority have no interest in eating turtle. However, I fully believe that a combination of education about, conservation efforts of, and protection measures for, the wild population of green sea turtles will allow for Caymanians to continue eating turtle while respecting their status as an endangered species.
In 40-plus years, 31,000 turtles have been released in to Cayman waters. Records show that the majority of these releases took place when Mariculture was in charge, but that in recent decades as few as 12 were released per year. So what is the conservational impact that the CTF has on local wild populations? Only 11 of the 31,000 green sea turtles released into the wild are confirmed, via the presence of a tag, to have returned to nest on Caymanian beaches. Due to an inadequate tagging system the CTF can only genuinely claim that 0.04 per cent of all released individuals still exist in the wild.
WSPA has never called for the people of Cayman to stop eating turtle and they have always had a viable proposal for change at the CTF. The Kelonia facility in Reunion is a source of great pride for the islanders: It turns a profit and is making great strides in increasing the wild population of turtles. Fishermen who once thoughtlessly slaughtered breeding females as they clambered up the beach to lay, now bring injured turtles in for rehabilitation.
I would also welcome a transition that results in the CTF no longer being a drain on government funding and would suggest that a portion of the current subsidy would be well spent on researching appropriate legislation for the protection of wild turtle populations and, most importantly, enforcement of such laws. I have no doubt that the Department of Environment would welcome an increased budget!
I am a proud Caymanian and I see the move away from commercial turtle farming as a progressive one in keeping with our global reputation as an excellent place to do business and go on vacation.
Just because we cease to farm the endangered green sea turtle, it doesn’t mean we will cease to take pride in our culture and heritage. The turtle will forever remain under our waters, on our flag, and in our hearts.