Compass Election Coverage 2013
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History of turtle releases

The numbers of turtles released from the Cayman Islands Turtle Farm have dropped dramatically since the 1980s.  

Since Hurricane Michelle decimated the farm in 2001, wiping out 75 per cent of its breeding population, the farm has been restocking. Its recent releases no longer figure in the thousands, but rather the dozens or fewer.  

In last year’s Pirates Week release, 150 hatchlings were freed into the sea. In 2011, 75 were released during Pirates Week and in the nine years prior to that, an average of 21.5 were released annually. 

These numbers are miniscule compared to those in the 1980s, where an average of 2,632 were released annually. For example, in 1984 and 1987, 4,476 and 6,059 were released, respectively. Throughout the 1990s, the release numbers figured in the hundreds, with 100 being released in 1996 and 837 in 1999. 

In a release process known as “headstarting”, the farm introduced 16,422 captive-raised hatchlings, 14,282 yearlings and 65 older green sea turtles into the wild between 1980 and 2001. Of those, 30,769 turtles, about 80 per cent tagged. 

Most marine turtles are considered to be endangered species and it is illegal to take a turtle from the water in Cayman, unless an individual has a turtling licence, of which there is a dwindling number. 

Walter Mustin, chief research officer at the Cayman Turtle Farm, said the farm is increasing its release numbers as its hatch rate improves.  

With farm-bred turtles maturing and breeding at the age of about 10 years, compared to age 25 or 30 in the wild, turtles hatched after Hurricane Michelle are now beginning to produce eggs. 

Mr. Mustin said studies have shown that the exponential increase in the number of green sea turtles nests on beaches in Cayman, compared to loggerheads or hawksbills, indicate that the release of turtles from the farm over the years has helped reseed the population. The farm only releases green sea turtles. 

Sightings of tagged turtles nesting on local beaches in recent years is evidence that released turtles are completing their life cycles, he said. 

The Department of Environment has been conducting systematic daytime surveys to assess numbers of nests since 1999 in Grand Cayman.  

“Since Grand Cayman monitoring began, we have documented an increase in loggerhead nesting numbers, from an average of 23 nests per year during the first five years of monitoring to an average of 62 nests per year during the most recent five years of monitoring, and a dramatic increase in green turtle nests, from an average of 16 nests per year during the first five years of monitoring to an average of 123 nests per year during the most recent five years of monitoring),” said DoE research officer Janice Blumenthal. 

“In 2012, there were 181 green turtle nests. Each female turtle is estimated to lay three to six nests per season, and nest approximately every two years,” she added.  

While monitoring over the past 14 years has identified 13 tagged farm-bred turtles returning to nest in Cayman, Ms Blumenthal said that may not be the definitive number as the department’s night-time monitoring is far more limited “so we are currently unable to determine the role of the Cayman Turtle Farm in contributing to the green turtle nesting increase”.  

“In the future, we would like to conduct systematic night time surveys to document living tags and a genetic study to assess the contribution of the Cayman Turtle Farm to the wild population,” she said.  

According to a 2005 scientific report into the impact of the headstarting project at the Cayman Turtle Farm, between 1999 and 2003, the mean annual number of green sea turtle nests in Grand Cayman was 16.4. Of those, at least two were confirmed as farm-released animals.  

The report found that releasing farm-bred turtles into the wild may reseed a population.  

But, recent arguments against the farm from the World Society for the Protection of Animals are that too few turtles are being released nowadays to defend the Turtle Farm’s stance that it is promoting the conservation of the animals. 

In defending itself against allegations by the WSPA last year that it was failing to operate as a conservation centre and treating its captive turtle population inhumanely, the Turtle Farm put forward several arguments to attest to the fact that it does contribute to the conservation of turtles. It pointed to the presence of more sea turtles in local waters in recent decades, to which it insisted it had contributed. 

The Department of Environment has been conducting systematic daytime surveys to assess numbers of nests since 1999 in Grand Cayman.  

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