In a surprise move, the Cayman Turtle Farm released 15 green sea turtles at Barkers Beach at the weekend, marking the renewal of a program suspended since 2012 after international questions about the animals’ medical fitness.
In a press release issued Monday, the farm said it had marked World Turtle Day “with a slate of special observances and activities” on May 23. “This past weekend, we celebrated by relaunching our turtle release program with a celebratory turtle release of 15 beautiful lively yearling green sea turtles off Barkers Beach in West Bay with microchip tags that are discoverable globally.
“Cayman Turtle Farm has satisfied itself through extensive testing and available scientific data that releasing CTF turtles will not pose any medical risk to wild turtle populations, and consequently CTF has now ended its self-imposed moratorium on turtle releases. Moving forward, CTF has geared up to release hundreds of tagged turtles each year both publicly and privately.”
Director of the Department of the Environment, Gina Ebanks-Petrie, suggested that the release may have been premature.
“The DoE is not against a release,” she said, “but we have picked up in our monitoring that turtles released, say, 25 years and 30 years ago, are now coming back here to nest.
“Given the high level of scrutiny and that diseases are prevalent, we just want to be very thorough that the releases are completely defensible,” she said.
“The DoE has not completed its review of the [medical] report. We only got it on Friday and are currently reviewing the information. The DoE is not able to endorse any release of the turtles from the CTF until we complete the review,” she said.
“We hope to get some feedback by next week.”
Medical testing on animals at the turtle farm has been done since 2012 by the University of Georgia’s Infectious Diseases Laboratory, under co-director Branson Ritchie. The unit was founded in 1987 to detect pathogens in domestic animals.
A decade later, the Infectious Diseases Laboratory began testing for “exotic and companion animals and wildlife,” according to the university, and in 2012, agreed to test samples from the Cayman Turtle Farm.
“He’s one of the top turtle and husbandry researchers in the world,” said India Narcisse-Elliott, acting chief marketing officer for the turtle farm. “We have been working with him since 2012. We constantly exchange information and material. We have had the latest results since late last year, and he has said our turtles are free and clear, better than ever.”
Questions initially arose in October 2012 when the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals – since renamed World Animal Protection – published a report sharply critical of the turtle farm, alleging dangerous bacteria levels in the turtle tanks and pointing to disease and cannibalism along the animals, leaving many crippled. The group was also uncompromising about the West Bay organization’s farming function.
“WSPA has conducted a detailed assessment and has concluded that under its current operational model, the farm is unable to meet the welfare needs of the animals under its care, a threat to wild turtle conservation efforts, a threat to human health and financially unsustainable,” the WSPA report said.
Government and Cayman Turtle Farm disputed the allegations, calling them “unfounded, erroneous and sensationalized.”
“We found no evidence of the kinds of injuries or defects among the turtles reared at our facility that the WSPA is listing in its assertions against us,” a statement from the turtle farm said.
Local government said the WSPA “disregards the important role the Cayman Turtle Farm plays in turtle conservation, and they appear to be unconcerned about the ramifications that the cessation of commercial farming would have on turtle populations in the wild.”
Cayman Turtle Farm Managing Director Tim Adam said the farm had nonetheless proceeded cautiously, electing to suspend releases until the Infectious Diseases Laboratory cleared the animals.
“We collected samples and tested them and we are now ready to release,” he said last month.
Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said the Department of Environment had hoped to confirm the Infectious Diseases Laboratory conclusions before lending its imprimatur to any releases.
“We are not disease experts so we reached out to the real experts to make sure that everyone was happy. With all those questions, we just wanted to be thorough,” she said.
Ms. Narcisse-Elliott said the Cayman Turtle Farm will stage at least two more releases this year.
“We released 40 turtles in November 2012. This year, we will have our traditional Pirates Week release of about 100 turtles, but will also release another 100 before Pirates Week.”
She also said that sometime early in the new year, the farm will stage a release of the rare Kemp’s ridley turtles.
“They are among the most endangered turtles, and CTF is the only place that has been able to breed them successfully,” she said. “We have about 20 on site, but the numbers we release will depend on how they mate in the coming months.”
No date has been set, but she indicated the “release” could take the form of simply handing Kemp’s ridley turtles to Mexican authorities, who would return the animals to their original breeding areas.
“We’re not sure what it entails exactly,” Ms. Narcisse-Elliott said, “whether a release” or a handover, “but we want to return them to a comfortable environment.”