By James Whittaker
Work has begun on a study to assess the demand for turtle meat from diners in the Cayman Islands and the vulnerability of wild turtles to illegal poaching.
The study, funded by the U.K.’s Darwin Initiative, will examine “socioeconomic aspects of turtle conservation” in Cayman.
It will also look at the role of the controversial Cayman Turtle Farm in meeting local demand, including its presumed impact in reducing poaching.
The findings of the study will “help inform management and reduce threats to wild marine turtles,” according to the Cayman Islands Department of Environment.
The department says it deliberately sought an outside academic expert – Ana Nuna of Exeter University – for the study because of the “controversial and emotive” issues involved.
“We are really excited about the potential of this survey to get objective information which is currently needed for management,” a DoE spokesman said.
The World Animal Protection group, which is currently on island for talks with government and is campaigning to end turtle farming, welcomed the study. The group has argued that the farm artificially stimulates demand for turtle meat and has questioned its assertion that farming prevents poaching. Ms. Nuna, said the survey aimed to provide real data and “much needed evidence” to help inform the ongoing discussions around turtle conservation.
Ms. Nuna, who recently completed a survey on illegal bush meat harvesting in Africa, is on island to research the issue and develop questionnaires that will be conducted as part of the study, beginning in September.
She said the main focus would be on quantifying and understanding the demand for turtle meat in the Cayman Islands and the implications for conservation of wild sea turtles.
“A lot of questions have recently been asked about the role of the turtle farm, consumption of turtle meat, cultural and socioeconomic values. This study aims to address questions that a lot of people have been speaking about but there was little information to actually answer robustly,” she said.
Ms. Nuna added that she had met with veteran seamen who used to catch turtles more than a half century ago, as well as consumers of turtle meat, as part of her preliminary work. She has also met with the Department of Environment and the turtle farm.
The public surveys will be structured to allow people to answer confidentially about sensitive issues such as poaching without fear of repercussions.
The Department of Environment says the data collected from the surveys will make it easier to assess the extent to which pricing and availability of farmed meat prevents poaching.
Also funded by the Darwin Initiative grant, the Department of Environment is completing comprehensive night surveys to refine estimates of wild turtle population size.
The study will also attempt to identify the extent to which the thousands of turtles released from the farm are returning to nest in the Cayman Islands.
During a pilot study in 2013, night monitoring helped identify tagged turtles that had been released from the farm decades earlier and had returned to lay eggs. Turtles typically return to the beach where they were born to nest.