Civil war in battle to save sea turtles

The Cayman Turtle Centre has produced its own green sea turtle conservation plan. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

A civil war has broken out in the battle to protect Cayman’s sea turtles.

The National Conservation Council has dismissed a green sea turtle conservation plan, produced by the Cayman Turtle Centre, describing it as a tourism and marketing plan rather than a viable conservation framework.

The council has put forward its own plan for the protection of all sea turtle species.

Council chairman McFarlane Conolly said the document had been in the works for three years but had been delayed by the turtle centre’s “ill-conceived” attempt to “bypass the lawful process” and push its own plan through Cabinet without input from the council or the Department of Environment.

“The turtle centre’s document is not a species conservation plan but rather a marketing and tourism plan made for the benefit of the turtle centre,” he said during Wednesday’s meeting of the conservation council.

“There is an obvious conflict of interest in a business developing a conservation plan to regulate and endorse its own activities. The circumstances risk reputational damage to the Cayman Islands at both a local and international level,” he added.

He said there was no legal basis for the Cayman Turtle Centre to produce a species conservation plan. That responsibility falls to the council under the National Conservation Law.

Though it has changed its name to remove the reference to turtle farming, the West Bay facility still produces turtle meat for sale. Regulating how that meat is packaged, to distinguish it from illegally poached wild turtle meat, is part of the conservation council’s own species conservation plan. Monitoring of the turtle centre’s captive breeding and release programme are also part of the plan.

Conolly said the council would welcome input from the turtle centre as a major stakeholder, and acknowledged the contribution of its captive-breeding and release programme to the revival of nesting sea turtles in Cayman’s waters.

But, he said, the law puts responsibility for protecting endangered species squarely in the hands of the council.

Despite this, he acknowledged that officials in the Ministry of Environment had written to the council last year indicating that Cabinet had approved the turtle centre’s plan and would be issuing directions to the council.

Those directions never arrived and the council was blind-sided by a press release from the turtle centre last week saying government had endorsed its plan and directed the council to “proceed with the steps necessary to adopt and subsequently bring this plan into force”.

Conolly said the council had sought legal advice which indicated Cabinet could not issue directions to the council in this way.

“The legal advice also indicates that the turtle centre has no standing under the National Conservation Law to propose conservation plans, much less directly present one to Cabinet,” he added.

He said the council would actually be in breach of the law if it went ahead and accepted the Cayman Turtle Centre’s plan.

He added that the document was extremely lengthy, overly complex and unclear, and only dealt with one species – green sea turtles.

He added that it did not meet the requirements for conservation plans set out in the Conservation Law and, in some aspects, conflicted with DoE, council and international ‘best practice’ recommendations.

Last week Turtle Centre director Tim Adam said the facility 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 declined to comment in detail about Wednesday’s decision, saying only, “We are pleased to see that the National Conservation Council is finally making public statements about species conservation plans for marine turtles. We are keen to continue making our contributions to ensure the continued success of our turtle conservation.”