EDITORIAL – Turtle release: A ‘shell game’ worth playing

There was a time when teeming herds of the mighty bison foraged grasslands from the Appalachian to the Rocky Mountain range – tens of millions of beasts upon whom entire populations relied for food, tools and other supplies. Call them the turtles of the plains.

But just as it did for Cayman’s once-abundant turtle populations, overharvesting brought the bison to the brink of extinction. If it weren’t for people such as James “Scotty” Philip, who spared and domesticated a few animals, there’s little question the bison would be lost to history. But it was the rediscovery of a consumer market for bison meat that deserves credit for the bison’s real comeback. Today there are about a half-million bison in North America – far more than would be alive if the animals had been relegated to a mere curiosity.

A similar trend is presenting itself here in Cayman, thanks to the Cayman Turtle Centre, which deserves credit for nurturing green turtle populations back from functional extinction. As the Compass reported last week, researchers tested the DNA of the green turtles nesting on Cayman’s beaches and discovered that 90 percent are related to farmed turtles released into the wild (call it the “23andMe” of the sea).

We agree with the Turtle Centre’s Managing Director Tim Adam that the family tree clearly demonstrates the center’s value in shoring up wild turtle populations. As he told the Compass, “It shows that 50 years of work is paying off.”

Inexplicably, Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie, a longtime critic of the Centre, said she is not convinced that the positive outcomes are … positive. She called for yet another independent review of the center’s protocols to safeguard against “unintended, negative consequences.”

If 50 years of problem-free turtle releases and a slow-but-steady climb in wild turtle populations is not enough to convince Ms. Ebanks-Petrie of the center’s success, perhaps she could make a call to the University of Georgia, which Mr. Adam says already has vetted the center’s protocols and turtle health.

Indeed, we wonder if any amount of hard evidence would ever be enough to persuade eco-warriors who have long ostracized the center out of misguided and emotional objections to turtle farming. There is no rational basis for arguing that the Turtle Centre cannot have it both ways – simultaneously to protect, stabilize and grow wild turtle groups while providing turtle meat for domestic consumption – but that is exactly what it has done all along – releasing 1,300 hatchlings just last year, alone.

Perhaps the center has been too good at its mission of educating the public about these magnificent creatures. As Mr. Adam told the Compass, “If we can get people to fall in love with turtles, you are going to protect what you love.”

Purists would do well to remember that in this context, “protection” refers to the species, as a whole. The Turtle Centre is doing a stellar job in its contributions to the rejuvenation and replenishment of this species.

All of us should be applauding – including DOE Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie.

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