Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered worldwide.

A plan for a new facility to breed critically endangered hawksbill turtles on Cayman Brac “does not appear to be a feasible venture,” according to the Department of Environment.

The Cayman Turtle Centre – formerly known as the Turtle Farm – revealed plans last week to set up a captive breeding programme for hawksbill turtles at a new sister facility on the Brac.

But a host of local and international conservation regulations are likely to make the project a non-starter, environment officials have warned.

Legislators approved $2 million in capital expenditure over the next two years for preparatory studies, including a business case for the facility, during budget hearings last week.

Turtle Centre CEO Tim Adam said the aim would be to replicate the centre’s green turtle captive-breeding programme with a new species. He said there were no plans to rear turtles for meat at the proposed Brac facility.

However, environment officials have cautioned that the critically endangered status of hawksbills will make it difficult, if not impossible, to get the project off the ground.
There are only a handful of nesting hawksbill turtles in Cayman’s waters, according to

DoE research. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has placed the species on its ‘red list’ and estimates there could be as few as 8,000 female nesting hawksbills left in the world.

Against that backdrop, the DoE believes it will be near impossible for the Turtle Centre to get permission to legally source hawksbill turtles for its inaugural breeding stock.

In an initial analysis in response to questions from the Cayman Compass, the DoE concluded, “Based on available information relating to potential sources for breeding stock, time to maturity and other hawksbill life history characteristics, and survival and return rates for captive reared turtles, this does not appear to be a feasible venture.”

Breeding stock must be legally sourced

The DoE cautions that any captive breeding facility in the Cayman Islands is legally required to ensure its founding animal stock is obtained in an ethical and legal manner.
In the case of hawksbill turtles, the National Conservation Council would need to issue a permit for the “take” of a critically endangered species in the Cayman Islands.

“Cayman does not have a resident population of adult hawksbills and our nesting population is so critically low that it would not be possible to establish a viable captive breeding programme from these sources,” the statement said. The council would therefore not be able to issue a permit, the DoE concluded.

To source hawksbill stock from elsewhere, the turtle centre would have to be permitted by that jurisdiction. Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species permits would be required to transport the turtles to Cayman.

“It is extremely unlikely that approval for such ‘take’ activity would be allowed by the foreign jurisdiction, having regard to the critically endangered status of hawksbill turtles globally,” the DoE warns.

Plan to regulate releases

The proposal comes as the National Conservation Council prepares to rubber stamp a new sea turtle species conservation plan for the Cayman Islands. The plan, which includes new regulations for turtle release programmes, will be debated at the council’s next meeting on 4. Dec in the Brac.

If approved, it will mean that the Cayman Turtle Centre will be required to obtain a National Conservation Council permit and comply with any conditions imposed by the council for its release programmes.

Though the centre’s green turtle release programme has been shown to be a success, with many of Cayman’s nesting turtles tracing their ancestry to the original turtle farm stock, according to a DNA study, the DoE has cautioned that the continued release of hatchlings into the wild carries risks as well as potential rewards.

Earlier this year DoE director Gina Ebanks-Petrie said the department was working to get the farm to have their health- and welfare-screening protocols independently vetted to ensure any turtles released into the wild did not introduce new diseases or otherwise harm wild Caribbean sea turtle.

This requirement now forms part of the permitting process envisaged in the species conservation plan.

Turtle Centre objections

The agenda for next week’s meeting, which includes details of the conservation plan and public feedback, indicate resistance from the Turtle Centre to this requirement.

“There was general agreement from the public with the proposal that all eggs, or hatchlings, or turtles introduced on Cayman’s beaches or released into Cayman waters, regardless of source, must comply with terms and conditions set out in a permit issued by the Council,” according to the summary of public consultation on the plan.

“The turtle farm strongly objected to this requirement and proposed an expanded programme for introduction of captive origin turtle eggs on to beaches in cooperation with hotel/tourism properties, additional releases of green turtles, and a captive breeding and release programme for hawksbill turtles.

“It is the opinion of the DoE that permitting as described above is required prior to legislating an expansion of the release programme or introduction of a release programme for hawksbill turtles.”