STC Sea Turtle Blog

Comments on the Cayman Turtle Farm

Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) is often asked its opinion regarding the captive breeding of turtles, as is done at the Cayman Islands Turtle Farm. 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. 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.

I speak from experience. STC was one of the first groups in the world to establish a captive breeding program. In the 1950s, through our “Operation Green Turtle,” STC nurtured thousands of green turtle hatchlings in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, and then transported them throughout the Caribbean to be released. 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.

Regarding the Cayman Turtle Farm specifically, controversy over the Farm’s practices began when the Farm shipped (illegally in our opinion) 20 live turtles for display in for-profit aquariums in Europe. STC is very familiar with the turtle culture in the Cayman Islands. It’s not unlike the culture in many other Caribbean island nations where local, wild breeding turtle populations have been wiped out by over consumption (as has happened in the Cayman Islands). Nevertheless, Cayman Islands government has the authority to set its own regulations regarding sea turtles. STC objects to those actions that have the potential to affect wild populations in the broader Caribbean. Those actions include (1) releasing farm raised turtles into the wild (and then claiming that this is helping conservation), and (2) creating international demand for either turtle meat or shell products. The farm does both of these, and while they may intend to feed that demand only with farm-raised animals, in the real world such demand inevitably will lead to clandestine harvesting of wild turtles. Just look at the situation with hawksbills, which are harvested relentlessly throughout the Caribbean to feed the demand for shell in Japan and elsewhere.

Green turtle showing genetic defects

The problem with releasing Cayman Farm-raised turtles into the wild is three-fold. First, because of the conditions under which turtles live and interact in captivity at the farm, a number of documented diseases have been reported in the Cayman Farm population. When these turtles are released into the wild, there is a real possibility of introducing new diseases into the wild Caribbean population.

Second, the original stock used to start the Cayman Farm (originally called Mariculture, Ltd.) was collected from breeding colonies throughout the Atlantic (and possibly elsewhere – the fact is the records are not entirely intact). As an aside, it is the position of the Government of Costa Rica that Mariculture collected eggs illegally in Costa Rica. Regardless of the legality of the egg collection, the point is that releasing turtles of mixed genetic origin into the wild very likely could affect the wild population in unanticipated ways. For example, it is widely accepted that little green turtles are hatched with an inherited ability to navigate to important foraging, breeding and nesting sites at various life stages. This critical ability could be impacted by breeding turtles that originated from different oceans, and this costly deficiency could be passed on to the wild population as these turtles are released to breed and produce offspring. Yes, a relatively small number of Cayman Farm turtles have been found mingling with wild populations in Florida, Nicaragua and elsewhere (suggesting that at least some have migrated successfully and are now mating with wild turtles).

Evidence of cannibalism due to overcrowding

A third, less direct consequence of the Cayman Farm’s turtle release program is the impact it has on national and international policy debates regarding sea turtle conservation. The Cayman Farm tries to promote its operation as something beneficial to wild turtle populations. Thousands of tourists, members of the media and even resource managers from throughout the world visit the Cayman Turtle Farm each year. 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. 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 – rather than saving nesting habitat from development, equipping shrimp boats with TEDs or undertaking some other action that would cost someone a nickel of profit. Sea turtles are in such a precarious position throughout much of their range that we simply can’t afford to send mixed messages about the hard work that must be done to save them. There are no quick and easy fixes to the threats facing sea turtles – and unfortunately, one of the messages perpetrated by the Cayman Turtle Farm is that we can “have our turtles and eat them too.”

The impact of the Farm’s agenda to open international markets to sea turtle trade is much more obvious. The Cayman Farm has a long history of working to ease international regulations that would allow them to market and sell turtle meat and shell produced at the Farm. To be sure, the Farm would like to put “green turtle soup” back on the menu in Europe and elsewhere. It is no coincidence that hawksbills are “critically endangered,” while green turtles appear to be showing signs of recovery at places like Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Green turtles have been given a chance at recovery precisely because we have eliminated the international demand for their products. After STC’s five decades of work to recover green turtles in the Caribbean, work that is producing measurable results, we feel compelled to raise concerns about activities that threaten to undo any of what has been accomplished. We do not mean to come across as disrespectful to the culture of the Cayman Islands or the many scientists working with the Cayman Turtle Farm. Much of their scientific work is rigorous and helpful in increasing our scientific knowledge of sea turtles. We respect this work and the financial contributions made by the farm to outside turtle researchers. For the most part, STC deliberately stays out of the business of the Cayman Turtle Farm. However, when the Farm’s agenda directly impacts larger international concerns, we feel compelled to speak out.

By David Godfrey
Executive Director
Sea Turtle Conservancy

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