Although it’s difficult to tell what impact it has made locally, the Cayman Turtle Farm got almost as much international publicity as the Islands’ financial service industry during 2012.
It started in October, when a report made public by the World Society for the Protection of Animals revealed what the organisation alleged was potentially dangerous bacteria in the waters of the tourism attraction, crippled turtles as the result of disease and cannibalism and massive long-standing financial problems at the Cayman Turtle Farm.
The report, completed following months of on-site and international research by the United Kingdom-based WSPA, made a case for ending the commercial production of green sea turtles at the facility on Grand Cayman – the world’s only remaining turtle farm operation. It’s release led – among other things - to the turning in of a 100,000-plus signature petition seeking the prevention of turtle farming and a very public spat between two knights of the realm; former Beatles front man Paul McCartney and business mogul Richard Branson
At present, WSPA officials said they are still “in negotiations with the Turtle Farm following the release of an independent study at its West Bay attraction site. That review was made public in January.
To say the initial report by the UK animal rights group upset Turtle Farm officials is probably an understatement.
“WSPA has conducted a detailed assessment and has concluded that under its current operational model the farm is; unable to meet the welfare needs of the animals under its care, a threat to wild turtle conservation efforts, a threat to human health and financially unsustainable,” the WSPA report stated.
The world-recognised animal rights’ group advised that there are ways for the facility to turn itself into a different kind of operation, focusing on research and rescue of injured sea turtles.
Cayman Turtle Farm officials, responding after a copy of the report was sent to them by the Caymanian Compass, stated that the WSPA’s effort to shut down the farm’s operations was “incompatible with the WSPA’s claims that the organisation hopes to assist the Cayman Turtle Farm to transition to a model the WSPA finds more acceptable to its aims”.
In their statement, Turtle Farm officials said they met with the WSPA in both Cayman and the UK to discuss concerns. It was through those discussions, the farm managers said, that the independent review of the facility’s operations was agreed.
“It has been clearly stated that the decision to alter the business model and objectives of the Cayman Turtle Farm would require a decision by the Cayman Islands Cabinet,” Turtle Farm officials said in their initial statement, “The WSPA has instead embarked on a smear campaign to coerce the Cayman Turtle Farm to submit to the WSPA’s demands, despite the fact that their allegations are unfounded, erroneous and sensationalised.”
The Cayman Islands government also released the following statement in response to the WSPA report: “By calling for a cessation of commercial farming under the guise of concerns over animal welfare, it appears that the internationally-based WSPA is attempting to alter the culture of the Cayman Islands without understanding the history of this small country or its people.
“Moreover, their objective clearly disregards the important role the Cayman Turtle Farm plays in turtle conservation and they appear to be unconcerned about the ramifications that the cessation of commercial farming would have on turtle populations in the wild.”
The WSPA report contained some graphic photos of turtles missing fins, sporting various injuries, even a turtle that was left blind by congenital defects.
The report opined that the Turtle Farm was failing to meet “baseline welfare criteria” for the animals.
Due to proximity of the turtles to one another in the tanks, the WSPA observers noted lesions and diseases “directly related to co-occupant aggression and cannibalism”. Diseases observed at the farm “since its formation”, the WSPA said, included chlamydiosis, grey patch disease and lung-eye trachea disease.
Water quality in the turtle holding tanks was observed to be poor and a diet of mainly fish food pellets was not deemed to be the “natural adult diet” of sea grass or turtle grass as it is often called in Cayman. General neglect and overcrowding of the turtles was also alleged by WSPA observers.
The Cayman Turtle Farm’s statement rejected the WSPA claims.
“We found no evidence of the kinds of injuries or defects among the turtles reared at our facility that the WSPA is listing in its assertions against us,” the statement read. “It should be ... noted, that once the WSPA approached the Cayman Turtle Farm with their claims, we immediately initiated a thorough review of our operations and found no basis for their sensational allegations.
“It is also completely erroneous for the WSPA to claim that we are rearing and slaughtering diseased or defective turtles for meat. Any turtles among the population with congenital defects are humanely euthanised.”
The panel of marine conservation and sea turtle specialists who inspected the Cayman Turtle Farm in December also called for improvements in the standard of care for the turtles at the tourist attraction in West Bay.
The four inspectors found that there was “clearly room for improvement in standards of care, which will require immediate changes in infrastructure, processes, staffing and resources to rectify”.
The panel members said that key among their concerns were “the incidence of skin lesions and mortality levels” in younger turtles and called for the immediate implementation of additional intensive treatment and management of all animals with lesions, euthanasia of animals with poor prognosis and for veterinary pathological investigations of dead animals.
Turtle Farm Managing Director Tim Adam said at the time that the farm was taking the report’s findings “very seriously” and was acting on the recommendations. Among the recommendations was the need for a full-time veterinarian at the farm and improvements to how the Cayman Turtle Farm staff treat lesions on the turtles. However, the independent inspectors also said they found no evidence of any threat to the health of the public.
The report made other, more positive findings. It concluded that the Cayman Turtle Farm had a “positive conservation impact” because it provided turtle meat to consumers – disputing the WSPA’s earlier claims - thus alleviating poaching of the wild population; augmented the local turtle nesting population through past turtle releases; enabled applied research of the animals over four decades; and increased awareness of marine turtle conservation.
The panel recommended that an independent advisory board of scientists and managers from the Cayman Islands and overseas be set up to help the Cayman Turtle Farm reach the long-term and short-term goals set out in the report.
Mr. Adam said the Turtle Farm would be re-establishing an advisory board to oversee, support and make recommendations on its operations.
The investigators also called for the Turtle Farm to look into how many turtles are held together in the tanks, saying that the high stocking density on the production side should be considered as a factor in the mortality rates among the young turtles and the presence of lesions.
The investigators described the slaughter methods and practice at the farm as humane and hygienic. “The process does, however, seem to afford an under-utilised opportunity for gathering supplementary data for health monitoring and management of the herd,” the report read.