As the Cayman Turtle Centre moves toward its annual January breeding pond assessment and further releases of animals into the wild, new questions have arisen about the health and safety of its programs.

A Dec. 10 release of 36 green sea turtles at Barkers Beach went ahead before the Department of Environment cleared protocols for the animals, sparking exasperation from the DoE and sharp censure from London-based charity World Animal Protection.

While the Turtle Centre’s managing director, Tim Adam, declined to address World Animal Protection criticism, citing previously misplaced allegations, he said the DoE had failed to offer timely responses to the turtle breeding facility’s submissions regarding the health and safety of the 36 turtles.

“Given that the DoE has now had the latest version of CTC’s pre-release protocols in [its] possession for over a month (i.e., prior to CTC’s turtle release of Dec. 10 2016), has DoE reviewed those protocols yet? And if so, has the DoE informed CTC of the outcome of that review?” he asked in an email to the Cayman Compass.

In a lengthy statement, Tim Austin, DoE deputy director for research and assessment, said the Cayman Turtle Centre’s protocols had arrived only 24 hours before the Dec. 10 release, making an independent evaluation impossible.

“We have been working with the CTC to try and establish approved and reviewed release protocols, and the CTC had voluntarily suspended their release program while we did this,” Mr. Austin said.

“However, with regards to the Dec. 10 release, the DOE became aware of the planned release just a few days before the schedule[d] event. At that time, we were still waiting for the Cayman Turtle Centre to provide the quarantine and health-screening protocols to be employed prior to the future release of any animals from the facility.”

Mr. Austin said because DoE Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie did not have sufficient evidence that the 36 turtles would introduce pathogens into the water, she could not justify ordering the Turtle Centre to halt the release.

Nor, he said, was the order justified under Cayman’s National Conservation Law, while the Turtle Centre itself still needed to register under 2015’s Endangered Species Trade and Transportation Law.

“There is no existing legal barrier to prevent [the Cayman Turtle Centre] from releasing their turtles,” he said, and while the facility’s protocols “were evaluated by an independent vet on behalf of the DOE,” the Department of Environment “was unable to fully sanction the release,” but “did everything within its capabilities to ensure that the released animals were healthy and fit for release.”

“The DOE does intend to follow through with its planned independent review of the protocol and to work with the farm to ensure that all future releases are fully sanctioned,” Mr. Austin said.

Mr. Adam further defended the Dec. 10 release, citing similar health and safety protocols surrounding Cayman’s blue iguana population.

“There are two endangered reptile species on Grand Cayman whose populations are being recovered through captive breeding and subsequent release of head-started offspring,” he said.

“The DoE kindly provided the CTC with the protocols for release of captive-raised blue iguanas, and starting in September of 2016, the CTC is using the DoE-approved blue iguana release protocol as the basis for our augmented release protocol for green sea turtles.”

Mr. Austin nonetheless supported the Cayman Turtle Centre’s turtle preservation efforts, noting “significant contributions” during 25 years, releasing between 32,000 and 35,000 turtles, although “not so much” has been done recently.

The center – which changed its name from the Cayman Turtle Farm in September – last released turtles, 15 in total, on World Turtle Day, May 23, 2016, ending the program’s voluntary 2012 suspension and vowing “to release hundreds of tagged turtles each year both publicly and privately” in the future.

The suspension had come in the wake of questions about the animals’ health, underscored in mid-2014 when more than 1,200 turtles died from a Clostridium infection – a potential source of botulism, tetanus and other health problems in humans.

Following the Dec. 10 Barkers Beach release, World Animal Protection complained the move was “placing wild-turtle populations in jeopardy,” and slammed the DoE for its “formal backing and support” of the move.

“If the DoE encourage[s] and support[s] such a controversial and risky release program,” said the organization’s head of wildlife policy, Neil D’Cruze, “it will set conservation alarm bells ringing throughout the Caribbean.”

Often accused of over-zealousness, the organization said last week it had nonetheless filed a Freedom of Information request “just before the Christmas holidays,” seeking copies of all correspondence between the center and DoE.

Mr. Adam said he was aware of the FOI, but declined to comment “until it works its way through the system,” which could take as long as a year.

Later this month, he said, the Cayman Turtle Centre will do its annual breeding pond assessment, a health check on the approximately 300 male and female breeding turtles, while preparing for new releases.

Mr. Adam was unable to name any immediate dates, but said the center has “quite an adequate supply” of animals “as we work our way through the protocols.”

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