KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Wildlife activists urged the Cayman Islands on Thursday to permanently halt the farming of green sea turtles at a popular government-owned tourist attraction that has released thousands of juveniles into the sea and harvests some for meat.
The Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy joined the London-headquartered World Society for the Protection of Animals in a campaign to stop the Cayman Turtle Farm from farming green sea turtles, which is an endangered species that when fully grown can weigh 700 pounds (317 kilograms).
Conservancy director David Godfrey said in a statement that "it's time to turn things around" at the roughly 40-year-old facility, which features captive breeding and research areas along with a lagoon where visitors can swim with sea turtles, "touch tanks" where children can pick up young turtles, and the biggest swimming pool on Grand Cayman. It touts itself as the British Caribbean island's premier wedding destination.
The turtle farm, bought by the Cayman government in 1983, says it carefully follows internationally accepted and humane animal husbandry practices. More than 31,000 yearlings have been released into the wild, it says. The farm has agreed to be independently evaluated in December.
Over the years, thousands of tourists have flocked to the coastal facility in West Bay to watch tagged, captive-bred turtles getting released into the sea.
"Despite the lack of evidence that the turtle release program actually benefits the wild population, countless individuals around the world are led to believe that the program works and that it is a successful option for saving and restoring wild sea turtle numbers," said Godfrey, who contends the facility's captive turtles can spread genetic complications and diseases to wild populations.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy's call comes more than two months after nearly 300 juvenile green sea turtles died at the facility in the Cayman Islands, where turtle steaks, fritters and soups are on local menus and the delicacy is considered part of the islands' heritage. The farm, which had a total of some 5,000 turtles in January 2011, said the creatures died after a water line broke and reduced the water supply to several tanks.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals recently released a video and photographs purporting to show turtles in overcrowded, dirty tanks at the Cayman Turtle Farm. The group maintains that some of the sea turtles have resorted to cannibalism in their enclosures.
The turtle farm said it has methodically maintained the health and wellbeing of its turtles through established veterinarian treatment. It insists it has found no basis for what it called "sensational allegations" and remains focused on operating a unique tourism attraction that supports research and conservation of sea turtles.
It also disputes the conservancy's accusations that the turtle release program endangers wild populations by spreading disease and genetic problems. Some 150 research papers support its conservation efforts, and there have been increased numbers of adult female turtles returning to Cayman's beaches to nest, the facility says.
Last year, about 10 percent of the farm's total herd of turtles was harvested for meat. The facility is the only legal source of turtle meat in the Cayman Islands and such sales are designed to undercut illegal poaching.
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd