The Cayman Turtle Centre is pushing for the adoption of a species conservation plan it has produced for green sea turtles.
The centre, which is trying to transform its image from a tourist facility and turtle meat production farm to a research and conservation hub, has authored a protection plan for the iconic species.
Director Tim Adam said it was a “dynamic time” for the centre. Its captive breeding program, which involves the release of juvenile turtles and hatchlings into the wild, has been credited with kick-starting a resurgence of nesting sea turtles in Grand Cayman.
Though species conservation plans are usually produced by the Department of Environment under the direction of the National Conservation Council, the turtle centre announced this week that it had written its own plan for green sea turtles and is working on follow-up plans for other species.
Adam said the plan had been endorsed by Cabinet, which has issued a direction to the National Conservation Council to proceed with steps to bring it into law.
The National Conservation Law gives the conservation council responsibility for adopting conservation plans for protected species in the Cayman Islands. It is not clear if the council or the Department of Environment had any input into the turtle protection plan.
John Bothwell, secretary to the council, said the issue was listed for discussion at the council’s meeting next week, and declined to comment further. Environment Minister Dwayne Seymour was not available for comment Thursday.
The turtle centre has been targeted by international animal welfare advocates in the past. Opponents have highlighted cramped conditions in the display tanks and the handling of turtles by tourists, as well as the meat production aspect of the business, among key concerns.
But a recent Darwin Initiative-funded study did credit the centre’s release programme with helping revive nesting green sea turtles in the Cayman Islands. DNA testing showed 90% of green sea turtles nesting on island beaches had direct family links to farmed turtles.
Adam said the turtle centre had seen a need for a conservation plan for the species and had responded.
“We have the expertise, the knowledge and the experience.” he said. “Why should we not step up and do it?”
He said the plan had incorporated the findings of two recent scientific studies on sea turtles in the Cayman Islands, funded by the UK-based Darwin Initiative and produced in collaboration with the Department of Environment.
He said the 100-page protection plan had been reviewed by Cabinet, which has powers to give directions to the conservation council.
Asked if he saw any perception issues with an entity that rears turtles for meat and has faced international criticism from animal welfare groups, producing a species management plan of this kind, he urged people to give the plan a chance.
He said the turtle centre had developed a lot of knowledge and expertise, as well as international partnerships, that made its input invaluable.
“The country has a well-written species plan that is ready to go out to the public for consultation,” he added.
Adam said the plan and the ethos of the turtle centre were based around several “pillars”, including preserving turtle habitat and nesting beaches, adding to the wild population with releases of captive bred turtles, helping eliminate poaching, educating locals and tourists about the benefits of turtles in the wild, ecotourism and scientific research.
The Cayman Islands Turtle Centre will celebrate World Sea Turtle Day with a turtle release on Governors Beach at 10am on Saturday.
In a press release this week about the turtle release and the species plan, Renee Howell, chief marketing and merchandising officer for the government-owned company, said she hoped the plan would be put out for public consultation soon.
She said, “For me, this is an extremely significant time for turtle conservation. It is an amazing opportunity for the Cayman Islands to adopt this carefully written Green Sea Turtle Species Conservation Plan and join the ranks of other nations with a well laid out and robust strategy for this important species. It is our understanding that the National Conservation Council, under the directive order given by Cabinet, will be proceeding with the administrative steps involved in putting the Green Sea Turtle Species Plan out for public review.”