Sea turtles continue to play a key role in the Cayman Islands economy. But the iconic sea creatures have become more valuable alive than dead.

While past generations of Caymanians relied on turtling for food and as a source of income, modern-day islanders are seeking to preserve and restore turtle populations.

“The value of our reef systems and the animals that live there has gone up by 10 times in terms of sustainable use through viewing opportunities,” said artist and conservationist Guy Harvey.

“That’s true for many animals. You can put a dollar value on individual rays, sharks and even turtles and it is many times higher for snorkelling, diving and photographing than it is for consumption.”

Catching turtles made sense when Caymanians were eking out a subsistence living from the sea, but Harvey believes the island’s economic future is in sustainable tourism.

Even continuing to farm and eat turtle risks Cayman’s reputation as an eco-conscious dive destination, he warned.

“Consuming turtles is no longer in vogue. They have become cuddly. For us to still be raising turtles for consumption is an antiquated position to take. I believe we should be focussing more on the replenishment programmes and I think there would be more money in that.”

Darwin studies

Two recent studies funded by the UK Darwin Initiative have bolstered the Cayman Turtle Centre’s credibility somewhat. In one survey, almost half of the people who consumed meat from the turtle farm said they would be willing to eat poached turtles if the farm did not exist. The second report, based on DNA testing, showed that the revival of nesting sea turtles in Cayman was linked directly to historic releases of captive hatchlings by the turtle centre.

In an interview with the Cayman Compass last year, Tim Adam, CEO of the centre, suggested the facility, as well as the country, was on a journey from consumption to conservation. But he said eating turtle was an important part of Caymanian heritage for many and it would take time to make the transition.

“The reason we still produce turtle meat is for the conservation value. We sell it at a subsidised rate and that helps prevent poaching,” he said.

A protected species

The National Conservation Council recently published the first species conservation plan for sea turtle in the Cayman Islands.

The plan aims to protect and preserve turtles, which are a threatened species internationally, in Cayman’s waters,

Council chairman McFarlane Connolly said, “This proposal represents the most comprehensive effort to conserve and repopulate our iconic sea turtles in the Cayman Islands to date.

“(We) believe the plan contains realistic measures and goals that will help ensure future generations of Caymanians, residents and visitors can enjoy sharing the sea and the beach with these magnificent marine reptiles.”

Sound conservation policy is also smart economic policy in a time when eco-tourism is in vogue.

Turtles, grouper, sharks and other iconic species can be sold many more times to divers and snorkellers than they can to diners, added Harvey.

“What really makes a dive for me is to see a grouper, a moray eel or a turtle. We are lucky to have the marine life that we do,” he said.

“The value of a single grouper in the wild can be as much as $15,000 to the dive and snorkelling industry. Why would you want to catch it and get $50?”

A sustainable future

The key to Cayman’s economic past may lie, at least in part, in exploitation of the marine resources, but many believe its future relies on preserving and restoring those same resources.

Linda Clark, of non-profit Sustainable Cayman, said turtles faced a diverse portfolio of risks.

“Threats to all marine life, including turtles, are increasing due to human impacts caused by factors such as overfishing, bycatch, ghost nets, plastic pollution, ocean acidification, changing ocean currents and temperatures, boat strikes and loss of habitat due to coastal development. Even tourist encounters with wild turtles can create a stress for the animal, altering its daily feeding or resting cycles if intentionally chased or unintentionally harassed,” she said.

“The continued survival of turtle populations will require decision making to be science-based, focussed on risk assessment, public consultation and use adaptive management techniques. Governments around the world are embracing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, embedding the framework into local policy while encouraging private companies and citizens to work together to create a long-term equitable future for all.”

She said the commitment to sustainable development, particularly below the water, was crucial for small islands like Cayman.