Defending Cayman's national dish

Regardless of what any animal rights group says, the problem with the Cayman Turtle Farm is not that it’s a turtle farm. It’s everything else government has tried to turn it into.

The original premise of the Turtle Farm, when it was established as a private venture in 1968, was simple: Raise green sea turtles for commercial purposes.

Unfortunately for the entrepreneurs, long-standing bans across the globe on importing sea turtle products left the Turtle Farm with a product it wasn’t allowed to sell.

The government stepped in and eventually bought out the whole operation. Part of the rationale for the government takeover was that providing a reliable supply of farmed turtle meat would satisfy the demands of Caymanians, thereby reducing the poaching of wild turtles.

It wasn’t until the last decade that the facility began to hemorrhage money, after the government decided to turn the Turtle Farm into a full-blown tourist amusement park called Boatswain’s Beach, spending some US$56 million on the expansion project. In an unfortunate marketing miscalculation, it turns out that turtles, as performers, were never quite the equals of, say, the acrobats at Cirque du Soleil — or even the dolphins across the street. As a commodity, they were mainly suited, well, for eating.

Currently, most of the annual $10 million subsidy to the Turtle Farm goes toward servicing debt, not covering operational losses (which is not to say the facility isn’t deeply in the red).

But the hard reality of dollars and cents isn’t a primary concern of self-appointed environmental crusaders such as the World Society for the Protection of Animals, whose goal is to prevent the consumption of turtle meat, even if it’s farmed — even though it’s the national dish of Cayman and has been enjoyed by residents of “Las Tortugas” for hundreds of years.

Now Cayman’s Department of Environment has accepted a U.K. grant to help fund a survey to see whether the consumption of turtle meat is as popular in Cayman as it was in the past.

We are hard-pressed to imagine a more frivolous use of pooled funds by a pair of broke countries than to study whether Caymanians still like turtle.

Let us assist: Most Caymanians not only like turtle; they love turtle, and for good reason: Turtle (and turtling) are part of Cayman’s heritage, its culture, its diet and even its holiday dinner celebrations. The modern-day Turtle Farm has distorted the price of turtle meat to help balance the books of its so-called “tourist attraction.”

We see no reason for such a survey to be conducted, unless the results are intended to become part of the outsiders’ campaign against the continued existence of the Turtle Farm. In that case, we see no reason why our Department of Environment is playing the role of willing accomplice to people who don’t like Cayman, don’t like the Turtle Farm and, most likely, don’t like turtle meat.

This editorial board’s stance is that the Turtle Farm, in its incarnation as a tourism attraction, is an unsustainable drain on public resources and should be shut down. But that’s because we can’t afford it, not because we’re against eating turtle meat.

On the contrary, if there is a market for turtle meat in Cayman (as we suspect there is), the government should pick up the phone, ring the top brass at Foster’s, Hurley’s and Kirk, and convene a meeting with the goal of selling the meat production component of the Turtle Farm to any one of them or a consortium of all three.

Let the market dictate prices, and Caymanians will have access to all the turtle meat they care to buy.

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  1. Cayman Compass, you got this one right on the head of the nail. What a pile of rubbish and a waste of money.

    People out of work, people losing their homes, children going to school hungry and this is the best the UK government can do?

  2. I have to agree on one fact and that is that Cayman cannot afford to keep this place afloat year after year. The CIG needs to get out of the Turtle Framing business, they are not very good at it. The turtle farm needs to be shut down or greatly downgraded to focus on farming. If turtle meat is in such need in Cayman they can license a private company to farm them. No surprise that the attendance is dropping, look at the cost to get in, not many people are willing to drop 45 bucks a person to visit this place, Turtles do not perform like the dolphins do and the amusement park part of is less then mediocre.

  3. And the CIG plays along with the UK too. Leadership or conflict avoidance?

    Put the money into stopping poachers as well as other useful community projects.

    On another note. If as someone suggested in a comment yesterday that they would eat all wild turtles if that was the only way to get the meat then see what that effect has on the gravy train of diving in cayman.

    Cutting it back is one approach for sure and then maybe some space could be used as a venue for a world class marine campus or some other progressive type venture.

  4. Many Caymanians and Non Caymanians alike also like rum.
    The government should therefore buy out the distilleries and subsidise to the tune of $10 million a year. They could then sell the product for a quarter of what it costs to produce which would mean that a bottle of rum could be under 2 dollars? Whooo Hooo, Partaaaaay.
    Snapping turtle meat is available in the US – much easier and massively cheaper to farm – still costs 48 bucks a pound for steak.
    Of course while CIG is subsidising every turtle that is butchered to the tune of $10,000, we aren’t going to be seeing that in Foster’s, Hurley’s or Kirk’s.
    They used to do the ‘Pepsi Challenge’ where people would blind taste various colas to see which they liked better – perhaps we might find that there is a market for Snapping Turtle.
    The money wasted, over $100 million in five years – Imagine if that had instead been used to reduce duty on food imports. Everyone could see their weekly grocery bill drop by 10% (and if they chose to save that up and buy turtle at 70 bucks a pound – their choice).
    Or maybe spend it on a mass transit system which would allow people to get from A to B without sitting in traffic (even Disneyland has realised the importance of that), revitalise George Town, allow the airport and cruise terminals to be built outside the capital … How many jobs would that have created?

  5. Just read the other article, has a few interesting figures about the farm;-


    1,297 live weight per week (x 52 weeks) =

    67,444 pounds total annual production (Live Weight)

    OK, I don’t know the Dressed Weight to Live Weight percentage for Turtle (After the guts, shell and other inedible bits are removed) but for beef it is typically 50-60 percent. Pigs are much better at about 70-80 percent (Farmers often joke that the only thing on a pig you can’t eat is the oink).
    But let’s take that best case scenario and say 80 percent.
    So 67,444 live weight would give a dressed weight of 53,995.
    Meaning $9.9 million gives 54,000 pounds of dressed turtle or 183 dollars a pound (Best Case).
    Or Worse Case (50 percent Dressed Weight) is 293.50 per pound, CI$647 a kilo or US$779 per kilo.
    Anyone heard of Kobe Steak? Considered the best in the world, from a certain region in Japan, the Wagyu cattle are bottle fed beer and given daily massages to ensure a stress-free life and it results in a beautifully marbled steak with a premium price in the $300 a pound range.
    It would actually be cheaper to import Kobe steak to sell at 20 bucks a pound than to keep the turtle farm open…
    Truly, it is time to let the market decide.

  6. Mr. Gray…

    Yours are indeed impressive and accurate statistics bu they do not tell the entire story.

    Let me attempt to fill in the missing pieces or at least, some of them.

    The last 5 years that you have quoted coincide with the monstrosity and total financial failure of Project Boatswain Bay Marine Attraction, an entity that was established post-Hurricane Ivan…and which has attracted negative publicity due to…

    It’s total financial un-viability…and its questionable record on handling and caring for the turtles under its charge and protection.

    The old pre-Ivan Cayman Turtle Farm was a much-loved and visited tourist attraction, and while it still lost money, the professional handling of the turtles was never in question…and many, many visitors from around the world will attest to this.

    Some of us have a very extensive knowledge of this as tour bus drivers and dive boat operators who made a living off the Cayman Turtle Farm, along with the people who worked there…we know what it was before.

    It is no coincidence that this new monstrosity has been the failure that it has been…just look at the prices for admission as proof of that !

    As an occasional part-time tour bus driver, I have very fond memories of the pre-Ivan Turtle Farm, as there was an emotional connection to the place and it put quite a few dollars in my pocket…and many others.

    I will not go into some of the political issues regarding what changed; that is a totally and deeper topic altogether.

    If this present facility is to be closed down now, that will still create more problems than it solves and…

    That is a Caymanian problem, not the issue of some self-serving conservationst group that are causing problems all over the world for their own reasons, to be meddling in but…

    With the CIG accepting their funds(it is a fact that the British Parliamentary Committee that voted these funds IS connected to these conservationists), it becomes inevitable that they now have a say in what happens from here on out.

  7. Mr Tatum,

    It is clear you have a warm and fuzzy feeling for the turtle farm, as you say, it had put money in your pocket – the point is that now it is taking money out of everyones pocket.

    Nostalgia for a Turtle farm of the past is paralysing decision making, and doing nothing is not an option.

    The current poll is asking the wrong question;-

    It should be How Much (dollar and cent) do you like turtle meat?
    That’s right, what price (per pound) would you be willing to pay to keep the farm open?

    While the people of Cayman can get Turtle Steak at hamburger prices, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth every time somebody even hints about fixing the problem.

    Ramping up production to supply a luxury product at a bargain basement price has caused many of the issues seen today.

    Strikes me that the Average annual consumption is really only around two pounds per person…


    So can I play mathematical devils advocate here…

    IF the CIG were to give everyone on island a 500 dollar voucher valid for groceries and/or turtle meat BUT raise the price to 250 dollars a pound.

    In that scenario it still costs the CIG 10 million but if everyone chose to spend it on Turtle the farm breaks even!

    Of course I’m betting that in that circumstance people would choose other groceries instead.

    So, at 250 a pound will you still eat turtle?

    When the government takes 2000 dollars from the table of EVERY family of four it is surely time for some action – why does no-one realise – this isn’t CIG money being wasted; its YOURS!

    When people talk in terms of 10 Million it never seems like a real number, but go to the bank and get out 100 five dollar bills and lay them out in a 10 by 10 pattern on the table and you might realise the PERSONAL cost of their decisions, then go and find your MLA and give them 500 dollars of verbal ear bending – remind them that they work for YOU and not the other way around!

  8. Mr. Gray,
    We are more in agreement than in disagreement.
    We both agree that the present facility is not financially sustainable and that the production of turtle meat for consumption is not a reason for the CIG to continue to subsidise its existence but…
    That is not the current issue under discussion.
    The current issue is the interference and influence in a national culture that has the turtle as its national dish.
    This is fundamentally about one set of people trying to tell another what they should and should not eat.
    THIS is the real issue here … let’s not lose sight of that.