Chairman: Turtle Farm board will stay course

If the words of new Cayman Turtle Farm board of directors Chairman Brian Wight are any indication, the farm’s managing director, Tim Adam, won’t have to worry about his job anytime soon.

“From everything I’ve seen, I’m impressed with everything they’ve done there,” said Mr. Wight, who accepted the post two weeks ago. “It is the top land-based tourism attraction in terms of visitors. It is very important both to our tourism product and culturally to Cayman, and I think it will continue to be.”

Over the past few years under Mr. Adam’s direction, the government-owned tourist attraction/turtle meat production facility/sea turtle conservation center has continued to lose money and required millions of dollars in subsidies from the public purse to keep operating. However, the entity has also made steady progress toward paying off its remaining debt from the reconstruction and build out of the facility between 2001-2005. Mr. Adam has said he expects that debt to be paid off by 2019.

In addition, the facility recently announced a decline in turtle meat prices due to higher production of turtles at the farm during recent breeding seasons. The new prices, set by the farm and which came into effect beginning Sept. 1, are $19 per pound for turtle steak, down from $20.25, and $9 per pound for turtle stew meat, down from $12.

“It’s been a steady improvement,” Mr. Wight said Monday. “Timmy’s experience in corporate management has really helped out.”

Joining Mr. Wight and Mr. Adam on the Turtle Farm board of directors will be farm scientist Joseph Parsons as deputy chairman, as well as Dale Bodden, Naceto Welds and Chamber of Commerce chief executive Wil Pineau as directors. The other three posts on the board are filled by civil service chief officers from the ministry of tourism, the ministry of agriculture and the financial secretary or their designates.

The Turtle Farm has come under heavy fire since the release of a report by the U.K.-based World Society for the Protection of Animals last year that accused the operation of mistreating turtles under its care and potentially introducing disease into the surrounding marine environment when releasing newborn and juvenile green sea turtles into the wild.

Turtle Farm management has accepted some aspects of the WSPA report, but rejected others and has refused outright to shut down its commercial turtle meat production operations.

Mr. Wight said he realizes his new position will have its share of challenges: “It’ll be interesting,” he said.

Over the past four government budgets, including the just-ended 2012/13 fiscal year, the Cayman Islands government has spent an average of $9.775 million each year in “equity investments” to support the continued operation of the Turtle Farm.

The payments, according to Turtle Farm Chief Financial Officer Phillip Fourie, are mostly to pay off debt accumulated by the farm during a redevelopment and expansion effort that was undertaken between 2001 and 2004, as well as other loans that were taken since that time.

For instance, this year, Mr. Fourie said about $6 million will be paid from the government subsidy to retire the principle and pay off interest on that debt. The other $4.5 million will go to making up operational costs of the farm that its revenues cannot support.

The majority of the remaining facility debt, about $31 million as of the end of October, will be paid off by 2019 or earlier, according to farm officials.