Policy Initiatives: International Issues: Cayman Island Turtle Farm

Global Conservation Groups Join Costa Rican Government in Condemning
Illegal Shipment of Caribbean Green Turtles to Europe


CRETE, GREECE – As the world’s leading sea turtle scientists and conservationists convene their annual Sea Turtle Symposium on European soil for the first time in its 26-year history, a diverse coalition of international NGOs from Europe, North America and the Caribbean are condemning the UK government for approving what many contend to be an illegal shipment of endangered sea turtles from the Cayman Islands to Sea Life Centres in Europe. The group has joined the Government of Costa Rica in labeling the shipment as a violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – an international treaty prohibiting the cross-boundary trade of certain endangered species, including all sea turtles.

Through a joint letter sent to the ministers of environment of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, the groups also hope to prevent the planned onward shipment of these turtles to for-profit Sea Life Centres in those countries, whilst pressing the CITES Authorities in each country to join them in rebuking UK authorities for allowing these shipments. The letter was signed by 15 leading marine turtle conservation groups, including the Sea Turtle Conservancy, MEDASSET, the Ocean Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The turtles in question were raised in captivity at the Cayman Island Turtle Farm – a government-owned facility that has been working to reopen international markets for sea turtle products. At a recent CITES Conference of the Parties, the UK government submitted a proposal on behalf of the Cayman Islands to register the Farm as a “captive breeding” facility for sea turtles, which would have permitted turtle meat and shell produced at the Farm to be traded internationally. To qualify for such status, the Farm had to demonstrate that all of its breeding stock was obtained legally and that its operations result in a net benefit for wild sea turtle populations. The Farm failed to meet either of these criteria, in part because of strong objections from the Costa Rican government, which showed that some of the Farm’s stock was taken illegally from that country’s nesting beaches. When it became clear that CITES delegates would not support the Cayman Farm application, the UK withdrew the proposal.

Because the Cayman Farm is not recognized by CITES as a legal breeding facility, any international shipment of its turtles is in direct violation of CITES. In providing turtles for display at Sea Life Centres in Europe, the Cayman Farm hopes to generate public support for its controversial agenda of creating markets for turtle products. Conservation groups, meanwhile, say the main reason green turtles have finally begun to rebound from near extinction is that international demand for turtle meat and shell has been all but eliminated. These groups have good reason to fear that any re-opening of trade will create the kind of demand that fuels illegal poaching and black markets for turtles caught from the wild.

To make their turtle trade agenda more palatable to tourists and the world community, the Cayman Farm has a policy of releasing a portion of its overflow juvenile turtles into waters around the Cayman Islands. While on the surface it may seem like a good idea to breed turtles in captivity and release them into the wild, turtle conservationists point out that the process actually poses serious risks for wild populations.

The Cayman Farm does not have complete records on the genetic origins of its breeding stock, though it is known that turtles were collected from breeding colonies around the Atlantic. Despite this “genetic soup” of breeding stock, the turtles are being interbred and released into the sea where they may be mixing with wild populations in the Caribbean. This could have a significant impact on a highly migratory species that is born with a sort of internal migratory compass enabling it to navigate in the open ocean and return to successful breeding sites. We do not know, nor should we be experimenting with wild populations, to find out how this affects the ability of future generations of Caribbean green turtles to migrate properly.

There also are very real concerns about having such large numbers of turtles in close captivity, where they often succumb to a variety of known and unknown diseases that spread easily in that sort of environment. Of even greater concern is the potential for farm-raised turtles released into the wild to spread new diseases to the wild population.

Many conservationists agree that such programs draw attention away from the most serious threats now facing sea turtles in the wild (habitat loss, incidental capture in commercial fishing operations, etc.). It is difficult to convince decision-makers to enact tough laws eliminating these threats, when pro-use, profit-motivated entities are putting forward misguided claims that captive-breeding can be used to recover depleted sea turtle populations. The reality is that measurable progress is being made at saving and restoring wild populations of green turtles in the Caribbean and elsewhere. This success has been achieved after nearly five decades of hard work protecting wild populations from threats on their nesting beaches; reducing pollution and interaction with fishing industries; and, most importantly, eliminating international demand for sea turtle products. All of this success would be threatened if international trade in turtle products is opened once again, whether it is in products taken from the wild or from risky breeding operations like that at the Cayman Turtle Farm.

* Costa Rica Letter on Cayman Farm Turtle Shipment acrobatsmall
* Email Letter to Belgium CITES Authority acrobatsmall

For More Information Contact:
David Godfrey
Executive Director
Sea Turtle Conservancy
david@conserveturtles.org or (352) 373-6441 (USA).