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What if the turtle farm went belly up?
Jeff Brammer
16 October 2011
For all intents and purposes, the question asked in the headline has been answered: the Cayman Islands government will subsidise the operation for as long as possible.

The Cayman Turtle Farm: Island Wildlife Encounter – part tourist attraction, part conservation programme, part provider of turtle meat for public sale to local restaurants and individuals – has operated at a loss for years. The government entity has haemorrhaged tens of millions of dollars and there is virtually no end in sight to this financial quandary.

Plagued by cost overruns from a redevelopment project, lower than expected visitor numbers and operating expenses beyond budgeted projections, the turtle farm will likely continue to lose millions and require recurring subsidies to stay afloat.

However, the more pertinent questions may be why the government appears to have an unflappable loyalty to an insolvent enterprise for which it owns all the shares and is guarantor of all debt? Why not, as suggested by a commission tasked with addressing concerns over the fiscal woes of Cayman government, restructure the turtle farm into its component parts and seek buyers for each or all?

The answer is twofold. First, in the current global economy responsible suitors have a particular aversion to risking substantial sums on insolvent entities presenting limited growth opportunities. Commercial banks would have no interest in assuming responsibility for lending for such ventures. In turn, the Cayman government should be sceptical about putting the entity up for sale anyway as it would likely get little more than bargain basement offers to unload the assets.

Second, beyond the dollars and cents is the legacy of the sea turtle with respect to the history and identity of the Cayman Islands, and the good work the turtle farm does do.

Turtles hold a place near and dear to many Caymanians, and for good reason. From the day Columbus first sighted the Cayman Islands in 1503 – referring to them as “Las Tortugas” because the waters were teeming with turtles – through the early seafaring days of frontier settlers relying on turtle meat for sustenance and local seamen sending remittances earned by turtle fishing back home, which laid the foundation of a bustling banking sector, turtles have been at the forefront of Cayman culture.

To this day turtles feature prominently in Cayman, topping the national coat of arms, gracing the currency as the counterfeit battling watermark and serving as the logo for the national airline, among other things. Yet apart from the nostalgia is the measurable good the turtle farm does in conservation efforts.

Since opening in 1968, the turtle farm has served as a wildlife conservation project and commercial breeding operation, releasing more than 31,000 endangered green sea turtles into the wild and presenting disincentives to poachers due to the commercial availability of turtle meat.

The establishment also has conducted profound scientific research through the years concerning the care and husbandry of sea turtles.

Today, the facility houses nearly 8,000 turtles while doubling as a theme park styled tourist attraction featuring artificial and freshwater lagoons, a Caribbean aviary, a nature trail and a bar and restaurant – expensive upgrades undertaken beginning in 2004 and which still saddle the operation with extensive debt.

A major portion of revenues for the turtle farm are derived from admission and the tourism sector has been hurting. If, and when, those numbers rebound, perhaps may be a time to revisit a revamped business model. Until then, however, it is likely to be the status quo. But then again that’s not all bad.
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