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Cayman Turtle Centre speaks

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Cayman Turtle Centre speaks
07Sep 2011

The Cayman Turtle Centre appears to elicit an emotional response whenever anyone discusses it. Recent posts on CNS in response to a story about our November turtle release are an example of this. Some of the comments suggest a lack of understanding of what actually occurs at the Centre. The Turtle Centre represents both a unique wildlife-conservation project and a commercial-breeding enterprise.

Housed, in a sense, under the same roof, the two functions at times appear contradictory, which is precisely where the controversy usually arises. From the Centre’s inception however, the philosophy of “conservation through commercialisation” has been both inherent and explicit.

An analogy may help illustrate the logic: Consider the reaction should chicken farms suddenly vanish. Farming fowl for meat and eggs is widely accepted, and has been for thousands of years. An enormous source of protein in human diets would be severely curtailed if chicken meat and eggs were no longer produced.

The fundamental difference is the acceptability of farming chickens for food as opposed to farming turtles for food. The differences in acceptability, however, are mostly chronological and geopolitical: Chickens have been domesticated and farmed for thousands of years across global cultures; farming of sea turtles only started four decades ago -- and only in one place: Grand Cayman.

We might point to another, perhaps closer, analogy: buffalo farming. One might argue buffalo farming helps conserve the species, expanding its population. One could choose almost any commonly farmed animal; a similar logic emerges.

Conservation and commercialisation are, however, frequently compatible: up to a point, of course. Annual turtle harvests must be carefully controlled, ensuring they are sustainable, measured against the numbers of new hatchlings entering the first stages of the Centre herd -- and allowing for the quantities of yearlings to be released.

Starting from early 2010, Cayman Turtle Centre has adjusted the price of turtle products to align demand and a sustainable annual harvest. What may be overlooked, however, is that even the sale of turtle meat has a positive conservation impact because it greatly reduces poaching in the wild, which is often otherwise uncontrollable, both in terms of numbers and indiscriminate in terms of age and sex.

Those who have been here since the early days of scuba diving will tell you that the chance of seeing a turtle on a dive in the Cayman Islands has improved significantly through the years. The increased numbers of turtles sighted aren’t just those released from the Centre; many are in our waters because the incidence of turtles being caught and taken from the sea around our islands has greatly declined. The incentives for poaching have diminished since the Centre has made turtle meat available locally. Since the farmed meat also supplies Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, the conservation benefits also extend to those wild populations.

The unique management programmes addressing both conservation and commercial activities also enable better understanding and care for the turtles, their life cycle and their environment in the wild or in captivity.

Another misunderstanding that looms large is that the Centre’s conservation efforts are limited to the turtles that have been released annually during Pirate’s Week.

The Centre has placed more than 31,000 endangered green sea turtles into the wild since its 1968 founding. Some of those numbers were hatchlings and others were yearlings. Further information on the Centre’s current release program may yield better understanding of at least one of the reasons for recent lower numbers.

Hatchlings, due to their smaller size compared to yearlings, are much more vulnerable to predators and other hazards. Unsurprisingly, hatchlings have a much lower chance of survival to adulthood. In recent years, Cayman Turtle Centre has released only turtles that are at least 1 year old. In addition, we now release them only after having carefully selected, quarantined and trained the turtles, gradually weaning them from hand-fed food, while acclimatising them to forage in our salt-water Turtle Lagoon, in surroundings that resemble the wild environment as closely as possible.

That process takes at least three months and a large number of extra man-hours of expert attention for every group of turtles to be released. This places practical limits on the quantities we can release each year, but we believe these meticulous protocols give the yearlings a better chance of survival to become parents in the wild.

But the turtle release program is only one part of our contribution to conservation. 
Another has been the Centre’s research efforts, producing approximately 100 scientific papers that have been published or presented since 1968. These papers have surveyed a range of topics regarding the care and husbandry of sea turtles.

Several new studies are under way: One planned for 2011 in collaboration with a university in the UK involves a new way of estimating the age of sea turtles. This study would not be possible without the Turtle Centre’s unique stock of turtles and the broad range of their accurately known ages. Such a resource exists nowhere else in the world.

Other projects include a study in partnership with a US pharmaceutical firm, a study in collaboration with a US university, and a hatchery incubation study designed to increase the survival of hatchlings.

Another issue frequently broached is the return of released turtles to the Cayman Islands.

After reaching maturity, which can take 20 years or more, nesting females seek to lay their eggs on the same beach -- or as close as they can come -- from which they originally left to enter the sea. We know that last year at least one female released close to two decades ago from the Centre nested on a local beach; this year about half-a-dozen Centre-released females were spotted nesting here.

Several other green sea turtle females also nested on the island’s beaches this year: Because trained spotters did not see them all, however, it is uncertain how many of those started at the Centre. It is perfectly reasonable, though, to assume that as more turtles, released years ago, reach nesting age, many will return to Cayman beaches. While we do not mark every turtle we release, we are able to extrapolate trends from those that have been strategically tagged.

Finally, we are aware of concerns about what looks like overcrowded tanks at the Centre. In the past several days, as part of our annual inventory process, display tank stocking rates were adjusted downward to reflect weight gain.

Our turtles range in size from 6 ounces to 600 pounds, apportioned among specifically designated tanks. Visitors are able to observe every stage of growth and development, including the release of the selected one-year-old acclimated animals.

We encourage visitors; we encourage interest in what we are doing, and we look forward to seeing Cayman News Service readers at the Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter.

Tim Adam is the managing director of the Cayman Turtle Centre