Farming sea turtles is no solution

| 25th January 2014
Densely-packed turtles in the Cayman turtle farm. Photo: © Catherine Mason.
Densely-packed turtles in the Cayman turtle farm. Photo: © Catherine Mason.
Green sea turtles are endangered worldwide. So does the Cayman Islands' sea turtle farm, which raises the sea reptiles as a luxury food, assist their conservation? Quite the reverse, argues Rachel Alcock.
Cramped, unsuitable conditions result in overcrowding, disease and cannibalism amongst these beautiful and majestic solitary swimmers.

Does eating an endangered animal help protect its numbers in the wild? Would eating a green sea turtle burger help to ensure this endangered animal was protected?

This is the dilemma often faced by tourists who travel to the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean - a British Overseas territory which falls under the jurisdiction of the British Government.

On the menu

Here endangered green sea turtles can be seen on the menus of restaurants which cater to tourists, sometimes even accompanied by the statement that this is the only place in the world where you can legally consume this meat.

Yet these conservation claims are at best misguided, and at worst a lie which hides the truth from the unsuspecting tourists.

Eating a green sea turtle which has been reared at the Cayman Turtle Farm, the only sea turtle farm in existence, does not aid the conservation or protection of this species.

In fact it results in over 9,500 green sea turtles being kept in cramped, unsuitable conditions which result in overcrowding, disease and cannibalism amongst these beautiful and majestic solitary swimmers.

A strange sort of tourist attraction

The Cayman Turtle Farm not only breeds green turtles for meat, but it is also a leading tourist destination on the island, and a facility which boasts about its conservation credentials to visitors.

The Farm claims that by maintaining a breeding population of green turtles they can ensure that demand for the meat is met, and that a number of yearlings can be produced each year to contribute towards local wild population numbers.

But the effect of the Farm's annual release of sea turtles is at best unknown. Despite releasing over 31,000 animals into the wild the Farm can only account for the whereabouts of just 13 of these turtles.

The Ecologist's own investigation also highlighted these concerns in January of 2013: "Does the Cayman Islands really need 'cramped, dirty and overcrowded' turtle farm?"

UK failing to protect globally important wildlife

This view is echoed by British MPs who recently issued the independent report, Sustainability in the UK Overseas Territories.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) report reveals that the UK Government is failing adequately to protect the globally significant biodiversity of the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs), and uses the example of the Cayman Turtle Farm as a case study to show this.

This information was taken from the evidence the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) presented to the committee.

MPs acting as rapporteurs during the inquiry phase of the report then visited the Cayman Islands to examine how sustainable development is being implemented. This included a trip to the Farm. The Committee noted in their report:

"While turtle was apparently a traditional cuisine in the Cayman Islands, there remains some dispute whether the Cayman Turtle Farm is creating an artificial market in the tourist industry by encouraging visitors to eat a meat that the majority of indigenous people now shun."

Stimulating an artificial demand

The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has claimed for some time that by allowing tourists to eat green sea turtle meat the Cayman Turtle Farm is in fact stimulating a demand for this product which would otherwise not be there.

The tourist who is told that they are protecting turtles by ordering a turtle burger is actually just ensuring that one more animal is being kept in completely unsuitable conditions.

These concerns were raised by WSPA, with the support of the EAC, and last week representatives from the charity met with officials from the Cayman Islands Government's Department of Tourism and the Department of Environment.

These talks have proven to be extremely positive, and WSPA is delighted that the future for sea turtles in the Cayman Islands seems much brighter. In fact WSPA and the Cayman Island's Government have produced a joint statement which highlights the level of cooperation between the two.

The joint statement also announced that from April 2013 funding will be available via the UK Government's Darwin Plus scheme for a thorough analysis into the sale and demand of turtle meat.

Make Cayman a centre for genuine turtle conservation

Initial discussions are also taking place into the possibility of ending the promotion of turtle meat to tourists - which would be a massive step forward in the promotion of a more reliable and credible conservation message in Cayman.

WSPA hopes that in the future tourists in Cayman will be encouraged to help conserve green sea turtles, not by eating them, but by taking part in genuine conservation activities.

For example they can join beach patrols to protect turtle eggs, and take part in initiatives to reduce lighting in beach hotels to ensure that newly hatch turtles are guided to the sea via the moon - not away from it via artificial lights.

And as they refrain from eating sea turtle meat in tourist hotels and restaurants, they can bring forward the Cayman Turtle Farm's transition into a rehabilitation and release facility for turtles in the Caribbean.



Rachel Alcock is Wildlife Campaign Manager with the World Society for the Protection of Animals.



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