A conservation plan aimed at preventing sea turtles from going extinct in Cayman’s waters will go out for public consultation next month.

Though populations of nesting green and loggerhead turtles have rebounded in the Cayman Islands over the past two decades, numbers are still critically low.

There are currently believed to be around 150 nesting sea turtles in the islands’ waters. Leatherback nesting is believed to be functionally extinct and there are no more than a handful of nesting hawksbill turtles.

Janice Blumenthal, DoE research officer, said protecting sea turtles had to be a sustained long-term effort.

In a presentation on the conservation plan this week, she and Wendy Williams, head of the DoE’s Environmental Management Unit, highlighted some of the main aims of the species plan.

The plan will go out to consultation next month through to the beginning of September, and will then be revised and submitted to Cabinet, which has final responsibility for bringing it into law.

The six main aims of the plan are:

  1. Identify and protect critical habitat

The plan identifies beaches across all three islands that are deemed ‘critical habitat’. These are the beaches with the greatest nesting activity, based on data from the last 20 years, that will require greater monitoring and protection. A large part of Seven Mile Beach and Spotts Beach in Grand Cayman, the public beach in Cayman Brac, and Jackson’s Bay and Point of Sand on Little Cayman are included on a map of critical habitats.

For loggerheads, the density required to qualify as critical habitat is 100 nests per square kilometre, for green turtles it is 200 nests per square kilometre.

The maps can be updated every five years based on changing data.

  1. Prevent turtle deaths from beach lighting

Lighting from beachside development is considered one of the biggest threats to sea turtles. When they emerge from the nest, turtle hatchlings find the ocean by crawling towards the brightest light. Typically, that has been the moon and stars reflecting on the ocean’s surface, but beachfront development has changed that and thousands of baby turtles are killed unnecessarily because they become disoriented and move towards land.

Though the Department of Environment has been promoting ‘turtle-friendly lighting’ for several years, there are still no developments in Cayman that have safe and satisfactory lighting arrangements.

The species plan makes it mandatory for new and existing developments on critical nesting beaches to install turtle friendly lighting. Williams said the DoE would be reaching out to all property owners and was willing to help devise turtle friendly lighting plans, which include using long wavelength amber lights that are shielded and oriented away from the beach.

Grant funding may also be available to help older developments retrofit their lighting. She believes making such lighting mandatory will encourage contractors and architects to bring in the equipment and develop the expertise to make it easier for developers to cooperate.

After a three-year grace period, developments could be prosecuted if their lighting leads to the death of turtle hatchlings.

The hope is that thousands of hatchlings will be saved and could return to Cayman’s beaches as nesting turtles in 20 years time.

  1. Stamp out poaching

Given the critically low numbers of Cayman’s nesting sea turtles, any illegal take can impact the survival of the species. The plan proposes maintaining fishing restrictions on all sea turtle species. Though some permits remain in place for ‘traditional’ fishing of sea turtles, DoE director Gina Ebanks-Petrie said no sea turtles had been legally caught in the islands’ waters since 2008, and only three people currently have valid licenses.

Of greater concern is the illegal catch. New measures to clamp down on poachers include making it mandatory for the Cayman Turtle Centre to sell its farmed turtle meat in sealed, marked packaging.

Blumenthal said this would help conservation officers investigating poaching incidents to determine if meat had been sourced legitimately. Ebanks-Petrie said the plan made it a legal requirement for consumers to use the packaging.

  1. Regulate the Turtle Centre’s releases

The Cayman Turtle Centre’s release programme, which has involved the release of farm-bred hatchlings and yearlings into the wild, has been credited with helping revive the species in the Cayman Islands. More than 90% of turtles tested in a recent study had DNA links to the Turtle Centre stock. But the ongoing release programme is a cause for concern for the DoE.

If the conservation plan is approved, the Cayman Turtle Centre will be required to obtain ‘release permits’.

Ebanks-Petrie said there was likely no issue with the releases, but it was necessary to independently verify the Turtle Centre’s protocols to ensure only healthy turtles were released.

She said this would ensure no pathogens were released that could impact wild populations across the region. She said the DoE was in a “stalemate” with the Turtle Centre on the issue at the moment, and could not support its ongoing release programme without it being signed off by independent experts.

The species conservation plan aims to compel them to cooperate.

  1. Ban heavy equipment on nesting beaches

Operating motor vehicles or heavy equipment in sea turtle nesting habitats between May to November will be banned, with exceptions carved out for emergency vehicles and permitted beach cleaning.

The conservation plan warns equipment can cause compaction of sand, which can crush turtle nests or cause accidental excavation of turtle nests. Therefore, to prevent inadvertent take of the protected species, it shall be unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle in these areas.

  1. Regulate turtle interactions

The plan also seeks to introduce guidelines for interactions with sea turtles, including a requirement to maintain a 30-foot distance from any nesting turtle on a beach. A distance of 50 feet is required for nesting turtles at sea, and it will be illegal to chase, touch, catch, feed or ‘ride’ turtles at sea.

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