The news that an infection killed 1,268 green sea turtles at the Cayman Turtle Farm over a period of four months last year left us saddened. The fact that officials at the government-owned company then tried to prevent the release of that information to the public left us, shall we say, shell-shocked.
The deaths of the turtles, and the subsequent cover-up attempt, illustrate the two critical flaws of the Turtle Farm — 1) its business model (a tourist attraction that raises sea turtles for human consumption), and 2) its organizational structure (a government entity operating as a commercial enterprise).
The source of the deadly infection, which ravaged the Turtle Farm from April to July 2014, at one point killing about 20 one-year-old sea turtles per day, was eventually identified as Clostridium, a genus of bacteria that includes strains that can cause botulism and tetanus. Staff responded by vaccinating the turtles, protecting them against the outbreak, but not before more than 15 percent of the Turtle Farm’s “inventory” had perished.
Remember that the turtles, which are marketed as the “stars of the show” to Turtle Farm visitors, are, ultimately, marked for the harvest. They are, in other words, food.
Farm officials assure us they follow proper protocols for sanitation, processing and meat handling — of that we have no reason for doubt. (Indeed, third-party inspectors have found that the “slaughtering” of the turtles was the finest part of the Turtle Farm operations.)
Farm officials also say that the one-year-old turtles had not yet come of age to be harvested. That, too, is true. Unlike popular (and profitable) livestock, such as cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, even fish and shrimp, it takes years and years for sea turtles to grow to a sufficient size so that they can be harvested for their meat.
Put simply, turtle farming is intensive, and expensive. And it becomes even more expensive when the farming operation is lashed to a tourism attraction that has been saddled with debt incurred since the ill-conceived “Boatswain’s Beach” expansion. Add it together, and you have a money-losing venture that the Cayman Islands taxpayers subsidize to the tune of $10 million a year or more.
We don’t in this situation find fault with Turtle Farm staff for the infection that developed, nor in their (ultimately successful) response to it. When you have thousands of animals being raised in proximity to one another, diseases spread.
We do, however, question the Turtle Farm’s handling of the request for open records that included information on the outbreak. Admirably, Turtle Farm Managing Director Timothy Adam has taken responsibility for the initial redactions.
Mr. Adam, whom we hold in the highest professional and personal regard, said he was trying to act with the interests of the farm’s “shareholder” in mind.
We presume he means the government. We would hope that in the future, Mr. Adam and his staff remember that the true shareholders in the Turtle Farm are not the individual or collective members of Cabinet, but the taxpaying public of the Cayman Islands.