Cayman Turtle Farm speaks

| 21/12/2010

The Cayman Turtle Farm 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 farm. The Turtle Farm 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 farm’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 farm herd — and allowing for the quantities of yearlings to be released.

Starting from early 2010, Cayman Turtle Farm 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 farm; many are in our waters because theincidence of turtles being caught and taken from the sea around our islands has greatly declined. The incentives for poaching have diminished since the farm 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 farm’s conservation efforts are limited to the turtles that have been released annually during Pirate’s Week.

The farm 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 farm’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 Farm 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 farm’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 Farm’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 farm nested on a local beach; this year about half-a-dozen farm-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 farm. 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 farm. In the past several days, as part of our annual inventory process, display tankstocking 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 Farm: Island Wildlife Encounter.

Tim Adam is the managing director of the Cayman Turtle Farm

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Is there a government lab certifying this meat?  With all the antibiotics being pumped in…I wonder if this meat will really pass US FDA inspection. 

  2. Khan Dhu says:

    Having looked at the headline, aren’t we all missing something?  A talking farm?  Now that must have tourism potential.

  3. turtle stew says:

    Basically what you’re admitting to is being paid a lot of money to do very little.  Boatswain will forever be a subsidized facility – it will never stand on its own…  The little good that it does do is overshadowed by the fact that there are hundreds of children with far greater needs.  Then again the Cayman Islands and its leadership value image far above substance…  Doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it looks good.

  4. Turtler says:

    31000 individuals since 1968? is this a typo or a joke?

    That is roughly 740 turtles released per year; Bearing in mind that the average clutch size is 110 eggs with roughly 4 nests per season and a 70% hatch success you have 300 hatchlings released per nesting turtle per year.

    Basically you are producing the equivalent of 2.5 wild nesting turtles. How dare you mention ‘wildlife conservation’ in your work?what is the survival from egg to adult? circa 1 in 1000. great job guys!

  5. Anony-Turtle says:


    And here I had had great respect for what Mr. Adam was doing at the Farm. But, again, he misses (or misunderstands) the point.


    1. In the recent comments he begins his article referring to the clear minority of posters were people who said anything against eating turtle, much less farmed turtles. However, the Farm and its overly-ardent supporters preferred to argue that argument (which I think most of us agree with already) rather than the points that were raised. (Unfortunately, this particular Op-Ed has now simply given the anti-farmers a target to respond to.)

    2. While many of the long-time divers will say that they are seeing more turtles in Cayman waters when they dive the question the Farm forgot to ask is ‘what species of turtle?’ When you have the answer to that (hawksbills) then ask ‘what species does the farm raise and release and what species was most often eaten on Grand Cayman?’ (Green Turtles) Even including Cayman Brac (where I have heard there actually was a preference for hawksbill meat but where I have yet to hear of more green than hawksbill turtles being sighted by divers) the majority of turtles seen by divers in Cayman waters have very little to do with the efforts of the Farm. Much more to do with the other protection endeavours in Cayman and around the Caribbean.

    3. I must visit the Farm again and take a look at that salt water ‘foraging’ pool. Last time I was there there wasn’t a scrap of turtle grass in site. Unless the Farm has recently discovered a preference (as opposed to a willingness) by green turtles to eat other foods in the wild? Perhaps algae growing on fake coral?

    4. Still,the Farm has yet to answer the basic question: how many turtles do you now release annually? We all know and laud the thousands that were released. But the handfuls released now are merely a (worthy) PR stunt. Stop making it out to be more than it is. (And make more of the PR opportunity.)

    5. Pointing to upcoming research is a step in the right direction.(Part of the current direction for the Farm that I like.) But based on the non-reporting can we take it that there has been a gap between what was done and what might be done in the future and, again, stop trying to claim more than is really there.

    As Mr. Adam says, there is a lot of good conservation & science that has been and can be done at the Farm. But you’ll get much further with a knowledgeable public by calling a spade a spade than by trying to dress it up as a bulldozer.

  6. flipper says:

    Poachers will continue to poach, Turtle Farm or not.  Furthermore at what expense is this being undertaken?  How many millions of dollars is Boatswain being subsidized by the government/people???  Oh, I forgot, you released 8 turtles…and just down the road from you, you captured how many dolphins?

  7. Anonymous says:

    2 points to make:

    1. How appropriate to liken turtles (endangered) to chickens (not endangered). Both are farmed in inadequate, filthy and cramped conditions.

    2. Seeing as turtles do not return to their beach of origin until adulthood, how can the turtle farmers gauge if their release techniques are successful? Is every turtle tagged? If there is indeed science happening behind those murky doors will scientific papers – complete with evidence – be produced and released to the scientific community? If not I guess we have to take their word for it…….

    • Anonymous says:

      There actually are scientific papers on the Turtle Farm’s website…the problem is, not one of them is even as recent as the 1990’s….they claim to have "hundreds"

      • Anonymous says:


        Boatswain’s web site (from 2008) lists 16 links to 14 "scientific papers", 4 or 5 of them are re-hashes of previous papers for reprint in foreign academic newsletters.  Most recent papers are from 1991 and 1994 were reprints for obscure academic newsletters in the Netherlands.  None of these appear to have been commissioned by the Cayman Islands Government, despite ongoing bursary of $10mln per year – WHERE ARE TODAY’S DOLLARS GOING?!? 

  8. Anonymous says:


  9. Anonymous says:

    It isn’t very commercial if it takes a couple of million from the government to keep it going. If the subsidy is to support the releases, it sure looks like a lot of money for very few turtles. If 31,000 green turtles have been released over the these many years, and we have only about 40 nests counting all kinds of turtles ( as reported in CNS), it looks like a total waste of effort. I commend you all for the improvements in the operation this year, but it is hard to see how this is ever going to bring a benefit commensurate with what is being spent. It would be cheaper to pay guards to protect each of the wild nesting turtles and their nests. Might be more effective too.

  10. Anonymous says:

    The problem of misunderstanding rests with your leader who wanted to turn the wildlife conservation into an amusement park!

    Why? Greed! Did it work? Think not!

  11. Island Visitor says:

    Thank you for the article!  I would have to disagree with the bit about poaching. They are still going to poach, because the cost of turtle meat became so high.  They can poach it, and sell it for half of what the farm does.  A poacher is a poacher.  They do it for the thrill! 

    i am not certain what was being said about the overcrowding, for some reason I can’t comprehend what it means?  does it mean that the tanks are based on weight?  If they are crowded, like they are, they will never grow.  if you have a goldfish in a tank that is small that goldfish will stay small, once you move it to a larger tank, it grows. You can control growth with cramped quarters. 

    I can’t wait to go to the Turtle Farm when I visit in the very near future.  I believe in conservation because honestly, I would love to see a turtle in the wild.  I can not scuba, but I do snorkel and was not fortunate enough to see one in the wild.

    Peace my Cayman friends! 

  12. nauticalone says:

    Thanks Tim. Periodic statements such as this will no doubt help all to better understand what the farm does.

    Also, the name change from "Boatswains Beach" back to "Cayman Turtle Farm" is definately moving in the correct direction! Whoever came up with and/or approved the name "Boatswains Beach" should be made to pay!

  13. Anonymous says:

    interesting reading.  perhaps when people have a better understanding of what the Farm does, they will have a better appreciation of the work you do. 

    mind you, it seems to be a a trait on cns to post negative comments about anything and everything with little or no under understanding of the subject matter, so not sure how much this will help.

    keep up the good work.


  14. Anonymous says:

    "The Turtle Farm represents both a unique wildlife-conservation project and a commercial-breeding enterprise."

    Is there a policy in terms of % from the total turtles leaving the farm – how many are going into the soup and how many to the sea.

    If there is no % target of how many should be released, it is difficult to monitor the farm’s performance.

  15. au revoir says:

    Sorry but not buying the poaching angle – anyone willing to break the law and poach turtles from the wild is not going to drive to the turtle farm and buy the meat.

    • Anonymous says:

      That MAY be true — and it may not, but if it discourages just one potential poacher, then the policy is successful. Poaching is a criminal activity; it requres preparation and work, and one must suffer the penalties if caught.

      If the perceived benefits derived from poaching are at all diminshed by the sale of turtle meat on the open market, so much the better.


      • i wonder- says:

        i would love to know the true statistics on how many poachers have been prosecuted, and the outcomes. FOI, anyone?

        CNS Note: Any member of the public has a right to make an FOI request on this or any topic of public interest that involves government and can do so anonymously. I believe that one would be best directed to the legal department. e-mail:

    • Anonymous says:

      not the point.  yes some poachers are always likely to break the law – but the farm allows there to be a law – while still allowing Caymanians the opportunity to eat turtle.  also there are many law abiding Caymanians that do buy meat from the farm, that would not be able to eat turtle meat otherwise – or would buy from poachers etc.

    • Anonymous says:

      Here is an on camera admonishment from a random poaching sympathizer:   

  16. too says:

    Well done Tim.  Keep up the good work!  Thanks also for explaining what the Turtle Farm is all about!