A renewed campaign to stop turtle farming in Cayman is under way in the United Kingdom with wildlife activists lobbying the British government to intervene.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals has published a second report about animal welfare issues at the local turtle farm and has drawn support from members of the U.K. government’s environmental audit committee, which visited Cayman last year.
“Whilst some small changes have been made at the farm, WSPA’s new report highlights that these simply do not go far enough,” said Neil D’Cruze, head of wildlife research and policy at the association.
“Add to this the potential negative impacts that the farm has on wild sea turtle populations and marine biodiversity whilst also operating at a significant loss; it remains clear that the Cayman Turtle Farm must stop sea turtle farming.”
Farm management responded with a detailed rebuttal on Friday, accusing the association of sensationalizing and misrepresenting facts to push their agenda, “ignoring long-standing local cultural traditions and displaying a reckless disregard for the truth.”
They say that claims the farm is stimulating an artificial demand for turtle meat are an “egregious fabrication” and insist it provides a conservation benefit by preventing poaching of turtles in the wild. They also claim that the farm’s turtle release program, which the report suggests has questionable conservation benefit, is contributing to a resurgence in green turtle numbers across the Caribbean.
The report, titled “The Cayman Turtle Farm, A Continued Case for Change,” largely reiterates concerns expressed previously about the welfare of the 9,500 animals kept at the West Bay tourist attraction.
It highlights a couple of small “victories” since the WSPA began its campaign, but warns that the underlying animal welfare issues have not been addressed and calls for the facility to transition from farming to become a rescue and rehabilitation center.
Caymanian freediver Tanya Streeter writes in the foreword to the report that some progress has been made, but she calls for more radical change, including an end to rearing turtles for meat.
“It is encouraging to hear the farm has appointed a full-time vet for the first time in its history and that it has stopped training a large female turtle named Myrtle to give rides to tourists.
“Good news too that turtle meat is no longer served at the on-site restaurant and that the Caymanian Department of Environment has committed to a three-year study to ascertain the true demand for turtle meat in the Cayman Islands, the only place where it can be legally sold.”
Those changes do not go anywhere near far enough for WSPA, which wants to see turtle meat off the menu in island restaurants and the practice of farming wild animals brought to an end.
The organization has raised concerns about overcrowding and disease at the farm, as well as signs of cannibalism among captive turtles.
It warns that handling the turtles for photo opportunities is a health risk both to the tourists and the animals.
The report also reiterates concerns that the farm’s turtle release program has “questionable conservation benefits” and could actually be harmful if it results in diseases being introduced into wild populations.
It highlights further issues with the other animals kept at the farm, including an endangered blue iguana, which was apparently donated to the farm in 2011 but has not been seen since mid-2012.
“Whilst the farm has not publicly stated what has happened to this animal, it is believed that it died. If this is found to be the case, then questions must be raised about the condition in which this occurred and whether the farm reported this to the Blue Iguana Recovery Program.”
It also questions whether the turtle farm is a suitable facility for the five nurse sharks and sandbar sharks in its care.
The report, an update of the 2012 document produced by WSPA, was unveiled at a launch event last week hosted by Joan Walley, the British Member of Parliament who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, and Matthew Offord, another MP on the committee. Both visited the farm last year as part of the background work for a report on sustainability in the overseas territories.
Mr. D’Cruze added, “We will continue to work with U.K. and Cayman Island politicians to demonstrate the need to transition the Cayman Turtle Farm into a turtle release and rehabilitation facility.”
In its statement on Friday, the Cayman Turtle Farm dismissed the report as a “regurgitation” of previously stated claims and an “ongoing misrepresentation of the facts.”
“The WSPA is clearly interested only in telling a lopsided story to suit their agenda. WSPA representatives have given little credit to the strides taken to ensure animal welfare and they have chosen to ignore or refute the conservation benefits of the Cayman Turtle Farm.
“The WSPA has not yet achieved its aim of stopping turtle farming in the Cayman Islands so they are continuing their lobbying efforts and misleading sensationalism in order to strong arm the U.K. government, the Cayman Islands government, the Cayman Turtle Farm and the Caymanian people to get their way.”