The price of farmed turtle meat is coming down in a move that has been welcomed by environmental watchdogs as a helpful step in the fight against poaching.
The under-fire Cayman Turtle Farm, which costs government $10 million a year in subsidies and has been criticized by international animal welfare campaigners, still has an important conservation role to play, farm management and Cayman Islands Department of Environment experts have said.
The management of the Turtle Farm said new methods had enabled it to greatly increase production and drop prices, in some cases by as much as 25 percent. It is believed that the new price structure will create a fresh surge in demand for turtle meat, which farm bosses insist is still a much wanted local dish.
They also believe there will be an environmental payoff.
Wild turtles are particularly vulnerable to poachers during nesting season, from May to November, when they drag themselves onto beaches to lay eggs.
Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, said turtle was a culturally significant dish for many in the Cayman Islands.
She said it made sense to satisfy the demand for meat through the farm, decreasing the temptation to poachers to exploit an endangered species to meet demand.
At least two cases of poaching have been uncovered by the Department of Environment during this nesting season. The crime is difficult for the department’s officers to police because of the staffing demands of maintaining a watch on nesting beaches 24 hours a day throughout nesting season.
Ms Ebanks-Petrie said, “We do find if the price of turtle meat is high, there is more temptation for people to go out and take turtle illegally. We would prefer to see the demand for turtle meat met through farmed turtle than from wild populations, which cannot sustain harvesting.”
The new prices, set by the farm, which will come into effect from Sept. 1 are $19 per pound for turtle steak, down from $20.25, and $9 per pound for turtle stew meat, down from $12.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals, which published a damming report earlier this year on conditions at the farm, believes demand for turtle meat is not what it used to be, suggesting the appetite for what was once a national dish is in decline.
Neil D’Cruze, leader of the organization’s wildlife campaign, said in a letter to the Caymanian Compass that sea turtle farming would never be profitable and urged the farm to move away from meat production and concentrate on conservation and rehabilitation.
“Meat production could be scaled down over a number of years, meeting the smaller but truer demand, reaching a point where sea turtle farming can eventually cease,” he said.
Farm management have taken the opposite approach, arguing that demand fluctuates according to price and is actually up in recent years. Managing director Tim Adam said there was still enormous public appetite for turtle meat.
He said there had been a bumper crop in 2012 with even larger numbers expected for 2013.
The drop in prices, he said, would help match demand to the increased supply coming on the market.
He added: “Over the last breeding season in 2012, the Cayman Turtle Farm greatly increased egg and hatchling production as a result of various actions, including enhancements to the breeder diet, removal of unproductive breeders and changing the ratio of males to females in the breeding pond, as well as younger breeders becoming more mature and so better able to reproduce.“
He added: “Lower turtle meat prices help our conservation effort in that the lower the price for legal farmed turtle meat, the less financial incentive there is to poach turtles from the wild. We strongly believe that a reduction in turtle meat prices will help to further reduce or eliminate poaching of wild turtles.”
Ms Ebanks-Petrie agreed, saying the DoE believed the farm had an important role to play in conservation efforts.
She acknowledged there were issues that needed to be resolved with the running of the farm.
“We want to work with the farm to ensure the welfare of the animals and that the conditions they are kept in adhere to best practice. I think they acknowledge that not everything is perfect and are prepared to work towards dealing with some of the issues,” she said.
Number of turtles harvested per year for production of turtle meat products:
- 2007 – 1632
- 2008 – 1728
- 2009 – 1710
- 2010 – 621
- 2011 – 725
- 2012 – 931