London-based animal welfare organization World Animal Protection has issued comments sharply critical of the Cayman Turtle Farm’s renewed release program and, specifically, Saturday’s release of 15 green sea turtles at Barkers Beach.
In a statement on Tuesday, the organization, which has offices in 15 countries, claimed the Cayman Turtle Farm “endangers wild turtles” and condemned the farm “for placing wild turtle populations in jeopardy by resuming its controversial ‘wild release program.’”
Saturday’s surprise release – marking World Turtle Day – was the farm’s first since suspending the program in 2012 after World Animal Protection warned that releasing ill-maintained turtles into the wild potentially threatened endangered populations. The group cited a litany of problems at the farm, including bacteria-laden tanks, disease and cannibalism among the animals, and substandard husbandry and management practices.
Recalling the episode in a Monday statement detailing the weekend releases, the turtle farm said it had “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.”
The turtle farm said it plans to release “hundreds of tagged turtles each year both publicly and privately.”
The farm’s managing director, Tim Adam, earlier described a four-year program of testing by the Infectious Diseases Laboratory at the University of Georgia, which pronounced the animals and the farm disease-free, clearing the path for a renewed release program.
However, World Animal Protection’s head of wildlife policy and research, Neil D’Cruze, said on Tuesday: “The Turtle Farm resuming its release program is a ticking time bomb for wild turtles in the Caribbean and around the world.”
He called it “staggering” that the turtle farm had resumed its “controversial” release program. “The facility has a phenomenally poor record of caring for turtles, demonstrated by the 1,268 turtles that died from a clostridium outbreak in 2014. It is incomprehensible that they appear to be allowed to make this decision for themselves.”
Between April and July 2014, nearly 1,270 turtles died from the intestinal bacterial infection – related to botulism – in five farming tanks of 1-year-old turtles, although officials said the infection had not spread beyond the area.
At the time, Mr. Adam said of the problem, “It came quite suddenly and it was very deadly. Chief Research Officer Walter Mustin declared in September 2015 the turtle population had “recovered completely.”
This week, however, Mr. D’Cruze said the clostridium outbreak was “a stark reminder of the disease risks posed by the farm – diseases that could be passed on to wild populations via the release of farmed turtles into the wild.”
The organization is calling for the farm to end its release program.
Mr. D’Cruze acknowledged, however, he was unfamiliar with the Infectious Diseases Laboratory studies and the “all-clear” conclusions.
“Neither the IDL study or any conclusions have been shared with World Animal Protection,” he said. “Our understanding is that even the Department of the Environment was not provided with any information until one day before the releases took place.”
He added, “Our main question at this point is: “[Was] the IDL testing conditions at the farm during the 2014 clostridium outbreak? If so, their efforts failed to protect the 1,268 captive turtles that died as a result. We know that the farm hid this outbreak from the public – who is to say that the same thing is not happening again? Only this time, wild turtle populations are also being placed at risk.”
He called Saturday’s release “nothing more than a token gesture, a stunt,” claiming it could not be “taken seriously as an attempt to protect wild turtle populations.
The Cayman Turtle Farm’s Mr. Adam declined to comment on Mr. D’Cruze’s remarks.
Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie, however, rejected Mr. D’Cruze’s call for official oversight of turtle farm releases and also rejected suggestions the farm should have contacted her department about the clostridium outbreak.
“DoE does not have legal authority over CTF releases and there is no requirement to notify DoE that releases will take place,” she said, although pointing out the National Conservation Law will require approval for releases from the National Conservation Council.
The department, she said, “was not aware of the clostridium outbreak prior to its reporting in the press,” but also pointed out “there is no legal requirement for CTF to report these incidents to DoE, as DoE does not regulate captive animal attractions/farms.
“DoE has documented farm-released turtles nesting in the wild,” Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said, recording their contributions to critically reduced populations in a research partnership with Spain’s University of Barcelona.
The department “is not against the release program. Our position is that we need to complete a proper review of the disease-risk evidence before we are in a position to endorse further releases from the farm.
“As DoE staff are not sea turtle disease experts, we will be reaching out to external experts.”