Popular Tourist Destination Is A Nightmare For Sea Turtles
“It made my stomach churn.”
Every year, nearly two million tourists flock to the Cayman Islands — and over 300,000 visit a facility now called the Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter (CTC), which claims to be helping the endangered green sea turtle by breeding the animal in captivity.
But there is more to the story than this.
“The tour company we booked through to see your facility led us to believe that your facility was in place to raise and release turtles into the wild to aid in their dwindling/endangered population,” a reviewer of CTC wrote in December. “Had I known that any of the turtles you raise were raised for meat purposes, I would not have given you one red cent, not set foot on your facility. When I found this out, it made my stomach churn.”
71,735 pounds of meat
Until recently, CTC was called the Cayman Islands Turtle Farm.
The facility began as commercial operation in 1968 when people took young green turtles from the beaches and went into sea turtle nests to take their eggs — over a decade, they gathered at least 477,644 eggs.
It was during this time that the green turtle was beginning to be considered an endangered species — because of this exact kind of harvesting of their habitats. It was proposed in the early 1970s that the green turtle be listed as an endangered species in the U.S., and this finally happened in 1979.
And even though green turtles are still considered endangered, last year, 71,735 pounds of captive-bred turtle meat were sold locally from CTC, an increase of 13 percent from the previous year.
Many of the tourists who handle the sea turtles at CTC, holding them up for photo ops and struggling to keep them steady as they flap their flippers, appear to have little understanding that many of these turtles will be slaughtered and sold for their meat and shells.
Tour companies aside, CTC itself makes no secret of its farming and it claims that the profits from its farm help fund the facility and its conservation goals. “By providing a legal, farmed alternative to harvesting turtles from the wild, we not only sustain deeply ingrained cultural cuisine, but by so doing we also greatly reduce the incentive to poach turtles from the wild,” India Narcisse-Elliott, acting chief marketing officer of CTC, told The Dodo.
The profits from turtle meat comprise just 8.7 percent of the center’s revenue, whereas tourist patronage comprises 85 percent.
“To my knowledge, there has been no change in the management of the farm or fate of the turtles there, but for PR purposes I suppose they now like the ring of 'Centre' better than 'Farm,'” David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, told The Dodo. “I’m still going to refer to them as a farm, because that is what they are.”
Life on the farm
CTC boasts that it has created and sustained what is the world's only sea turtle captive breeding facility. “From that resource, we have released over 31,000 turtles into the wild that were bred, laid, hatched and raised entirely on our unique farm,” Narcisse-Elliott said, “and we continue to release captive-bred turtles even up to a few weeks ago: Nowhere else in the world can claim to do that.”
But what is life is like for the captive turtles at CTC while they are still alive?
Hundreds of thousands of people come through the center to handle and swim with the captive turtles, who are kept in concrete enclosures. Some say the turtles, who are built to swim hundreds, even thousands of miles, in the wild, are stressed in this environment.
“The stress and injuries associated with the repeated handling of these wild sea turtles by tourists is just the tip of the iceberg,” Neil D’Cruze, senior wildlife advisor at World Animal Protection (WAP), said in a statement. “Behind the scenes, hundreds of sea turtles are crammed into overcrowded shallow tanks out of sight from the tourist view.”
In 2014, dozens of turtles at CTC started dying every day. It turned out a bacterial infection ran rampant through the captive population and a total of 1,268 turtles died that year due to clostridium, a bacteria that can cause botulism and tetanus, and can even make people sick.
If diseased turtles are released into the wild, it could kill off wild populations. “By releasing captive-bred turtles into the wild, the CTC may be having a detrimental impact on wild turtle populations, as the release of captive animals carries the risk of transmitting diseases and genetic pollution, furthering species decline,” D’Cruze told The Dodo.
And some tourists are noticing the unnatural conditions of the enclosures.
"We were very disappointed to see how small their enclosures were," one reviewer wrote. "Most of them had no real room to swim ... were crowded together ... had no shade in a shallow tank."
Another added: "The sea turtles are forced to dwell in these cramped, filthy tanks. They're so cramped that they are biting and maiming one another. They are obviously not cleaned and have open wounds from attacking each other."
CTC answers many of its bad reviews. "When people see so many turtles in tanks and pools, they often jump to the conclusion that the turtles are overcrowded and do not have enough room. But please think about this issue carefully," CTC wrote in reply to a concerned visitor on Facebook. "Although there may be many turtles in a tank, the movement of each turtle is not really restricted by the presence of any of the others. Each turtle, from its own point of view, has the freedom of the whole tank, in the same way that children at recess in a playground feel that they have the run of the whole playground."
The business of turtle meat
Thirty percent of Cayman Island residents ate turtle meat within a 12-month period, but only 1 percent ate the meat regularly (once per week), according to a 2015 survey.
These turtle “products” can only be sold locally because it’s illegal to sell endangered species, or products from them, internationally. This is something CTC found out the hard way, when it tried to ship several endangered green turtles from its facility to private aquariums overseas.
“A few years ago the farm was caught trying to sell and export a bunch of live green turtles to Europe for display in private, for-profit aquariums, which was a violation of CITES regulations,” Godfrey said. “We called them on it and eventually halted the shipment … We also have vigorously opposed the farm’s multiple attempts over the years to revise CITES regulations in order to open the door for their export of turtle products.”
CTC claims that farming an endangered species just to slaughter the animals could help decrease the killing of wild turtles — but some experts say it can have the opposite effect. “The most harmful impact from [turtle consumption] is the perpetuation and building of public demand for sea turtle meat to eat,” Godfrey said. “We do not believe the availability of meat from the farm decreases pressure on the wild populations.”
The harvesting of green turtle eggs and adults is one of the most detrimental human threats to green turtles, according to the IUCN, and the harvest remains legal in several countries. Promoting turtle meat as a cuisine could have detrimental effects, especially given how many foreigners visit the Cayman Islands to see this unique facility.
Releasing the turtles
Of the 31,000 young turtles bred at CTC and released into the wild, it’s uncertain how many actually survive.
“The CTC has also not published full records regarding the number of sea turtles that have survived the release process or how many have returned to Caymanian beaches to lay their eggs,” D’Cruze said. “Without this evidence, it is impossible to determine to what extent the turtle release program is effective or whether conservation efforts could be improved if the funds were spent maintaining wild populations.”
The CTC might make it seem like captive breeding is the only way to protect wild sea turtles, but some experts say this is sorely misleading. “Although the idea seems to make sense intuitively, it is STC’s position that this is not the best way to save or restore sea turtle populations,” Godfrey said. “In fact, there is good reason to believe it actually causes more harm than good. This opinion is shared by many sea turtle biologists and conservationists around the world.”
Godfrey’s organization was one of the first groups in the world to establish a captive breeding program, back in the 1950s. “Operation Green Turtle” nurtured thousands of green turtle hatchlings in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, and then transported them throughout the Caribbean to be released, Godfrey said. “We hoped to increase turtle stocks in the Caribbean and start new nesting colonies throughout the region. It was and is a noble cause, but quite simply it didn't work.”
“There are more effective conservation approaches that do not have the same exorbitant financial costs or the negative impacts on animal health and welfare,” D’Cruze added.
Educating the public, for example, about the threats to sea turtles would help decrease demand for turtle meat and jewelry made out of their shells.
A future for sea turtles
Perpetuating mixed messages about how to best save green turtles could literally kill them in the long run, according to Godfrey.
“The Cayman farm tries to promote its operation as something beneficial to wild turtle populations,” Godfrey said. “Despite the lack of any proof that the Cayman Farm’s turtle release program actually benefits the wild population, countless individuals around the world are led to believe that the program works and that one successful option for saving and restoring wild sea turtle numbers is simply to breed them in captivity for meat — releasing some into the wild.”
This can lead people to think that there’s an easy fix to save sea turtles. “I can’t tell you how many times during critical debates about some potential threat to sea turtles, developers, fishermen or politicians who do not want to make any sacrifices on behalf of sea turtles raise the argument that all we need to do is breed them in captivity,” Godfrey said, adding that what actually needs to be done is preserving their habitat and better equipping fishing boats so as to decrease run-ins with sea turtles.
“There are no quick and easy fixes to the threats facing sea turtles,” Godfrey said, “and unfortunately, one of the messages perpetrated by the Cayman Turtle Farm is that we can have our turtles and eat them too.”