From late April through July last year, 1,268 turtles died at the Cayman Turtle Farm from what was described then as a mystery illness.
The problem was later identified as an infection from Clostridium, the bacteria that can cause botulism, tetanus and other potentially serious health problems for humans, according to records from the government-owned Turtle Farm and interviews with its officials.
The infection killed about 20 green sea turtles a day, according to Turtle Farm board meeting minutes. Turtle Farm officials said the infection spread to five tanks containing one-year-old turtles but did not affect the turtles that were of age to slaughter for meat.
Officials said the infection did not spread beyond the farming area where turtles are raised for meat.
“We had an infection, we diagnosed it, we treated it,” said Walter Mustin, chief research officer for the Turtle Farm. The minutes from the July 2014 meeting state: “Symptoms included loss of muscular control due to possible nerve damage.”
Turtle Farm Managing Director Tim Adam said the turtles became lethargic and lost weight. As the infection progressed, they could no longer swim. Infected turtles “get to a point where they can’t lift their necks,” he said.
“It got really bad,” he said. “It came quite suddenly and it was very deadly.”
The farm lost more than 15 percent of the 7,127 turtles in the farming facility. Mr. Mustin wrote this week: “The Farm’s turtle population has recovered completely. There are presently 9,243 turtles on the farm.”
The notes of the meeting, released following a Freedom of Information Law request by the Cayman Compass, state that Mr. Mustin had to consult with the farm’s previous chief research officer, Joseph Parsons, who served on the board when this came up in the meeting. Mr. Parsons suggested that the symptoms were similar to a condition called Floppy Flipper syndrome that was seen in the 1970s and was successfully treated with a vaccine.
Mr. Mustin said in an interview that farm staff treated the turtles with a tetanus vaccine. The vaccinations did not cure the infected turtles, but did protect the farm’s remaining turtles, he said.
Testing by a University of Georgia laboratory revealed a Clostridium infection spreading through the turtle population. Clostridium infections can take many forms. Some are harmless to humans, while others cause serious, potentially deadly infections.
Public Health England, in its standards on Clostridium species, describes the problems with the infections: “Clinically significant Clostridium species produce a variety of toxins. It is the production of these toxins which leads to the distinctive clinical features of the diseases they cause, e.g., tetanus and botulism result from the production of neurotoxins that are amongst the most lethal substances known to man.”
According to a separate Freedom of Information Law request from September 2014, there had been no tests on turtle meat from the farm in the five previous years.
“There has never been any credible report of anyone ever becoming ill from eating turtle meat produced at our farm. We use proper meat processing infrastructure, proper sanitation techniques and production processes, and proper raw meat handling protocols to ensure the continued safety of our turtle meat,” Mr. Mustin wrote.
The Turtle Farm’s 2013-2014 annual report showed that turtle meat demand increased by more than 40 percent during the year as the farm dropped prices for the meat. Mr. Mustin said that number increased again by roughly 25 percent in 2014-2015.
The Cayman Turtle Farm has been under fire in recent years, the target of a campaign by World Animal Protection pushing for reforms at the farm and criticizing the organization for how the endangered green turtles are treated.