Turtle Centre proud of release program results

Center hopes study results will boost conservation reputation

Turtles bred at Cayman Turtle Centre are released at Spotts Beach during a 2018 Pirates Week event. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

A new study showing the impact of the Cayman Turtle Centre in bringing back green turtles from the brink of extinction should help transform the international image of the institution, according to managing director Tim Adam.

The turtle center has been a pariah among some environmental groups for several years, becoming the focus of a World Animal Protection group campaign to end turtle farming.

Mr. Adam says the results of the study highlight the value of the West Bay attraction as a conservation center.

The University of Barcelona study, funded by the U.K.’s Darwin Plus initiative and produced with the assistance of the Department of Environment and the Turtle Centre, used DNA testing to show that 90 percent of the green turtles nesting on Cayman’s beaches had a direct family link to farmed turtles. That means the bulk of those turtles were released by the farm in infancy and have now reached adulthood and returned home to nest.

Mr. Adam said the results show the vital conservation role that the Turtle Centre has played: “It shows that 50 years of work is paying off. We have brought the species back from the brink of extinction and we are looking forward to continuing this kind of work.”

He said the work of the Turtle Centre was an “object lesson” in the ability of captive breeding programs to help revive threatened species. Green turtles were considered functionally extinct in Cayman’s waters at the end of the 20th century.

The study shows that there is now a nesting population of around 150 green turtles in Cayman’s waters.

Mr. Adam said that is encouraging, but he believes the Turtle Centre still needs to continue its breeding programs.

“It is certainly very encouraging to see the numbers of nests increasing, but it is still a fragile number. I think Cayman is still quite a distance away from saying we have a population of green turtles that is self-sustaining and we don’t need to have any intervention to keep it going,” he said.

The Department of Environment has expressed reservations about the Turtle Centre’s continuing release programs. Speaking at a press conference last week, environment director Gina Ebanks-Petrie said the DoE would like to see independent vetting of the center’s release protocols to ensure there were no unintended, negative consequences.

Mr. Adam insists that the Turtle Centre already has its protocols vetted and the health of its turtles checked through a partnership with the University of Georgia. After 50 years of releases, he said, there had been no ill-effects connected to the Turtle Centre’s release program.

The Turtle Centre, which rebranded from “Cayman Turtle Farm” in 2016 as part of an image change, plans to increase its focus both on conservation and what Mr. Adam calls “turtle tourism.”

Last year, the center experimented with public releases of hatchlings and older “head started” turtles, reared for a year in captivity to increase their odds of survival.

He said the public releases had proved popular.

“If we can get people to fall in love with turtles, you are going to protect what you love,” he added.

The farm released around 1,300 hatchlings last year, of which around 170 were “head started.”

Mr. Adam acknowledges that many still view the turtle center’s function of producing turtle meat for sale as a contradiction of its stated remit to be a conservation center.

But he points to another Darwin Plus-funded study as evidence that the center’s meat production also serves a conservation purpose. In surveys for that study, more than half of the Caymanian consumers interviewed indicated they would buy wild turtle if the farm were to close its doors.

Mr. Adam said, “The reason we still produce turtle meat is for the conservation value. We sell it at a subsidized rate and that helps prevent poaching.”

He believes more can be done to persuade Caymanians to eat turtle less, and to consider turtle as a meal for a special occasion rather than for every Sunday. But he says it is unrealistic to expect people to stop eating it completely.

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