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Protect Our Turtles

This turtle is digging a pit and chamber to store her eggs.(Photo by Mark Orr)

A nesting female turtle was illegally slaughtered by poachers when she came onto the beach to nest in the Sand Hole Road area of West Bay. The poaching was discovered by Department of Environment (DoE) Marine Enforcement Supervisor, Mark Orr, who found the bloody turtle shell and other signs of the crime.

According to Officer Orr, it appears that the green turtle, estimated to weigh more than 350 pounds, was taken when she came onto the beach to nest. The turtle was dragged into the trees, where she was butchered. All useable parts of the turtle, including about 100 eggs she was about to lay, were carried away from the site, leaving only the shell and calipee (bottom shell) behind.

Officer Orr hopes that evidence collected at the scene will lead to the identification of the persons responsible.

"Turtle poaching is among the most serious of conservation offences," he said. The DoE intends to vigorously investigate this case, and to recommend prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. Past cases of this nature have resulted in large fines and prison sentences; furthermore, equipment used in the offence, including vehicles and boats, may be confiscated by the Courts.

If anyone has any information regarding this incident, Officer Orr can be reached at 916-4271.

Sea-turtle nesting populations in the Cayman Islands are dangerously close to extinction, according to DoE staff.

"Each nesting and mature turtle is crucial to ensuring the survival of our vulnerable populations," explained DoE Research Officer Janice Blumenthal.

Historical accounts describe the Cayman Islands sea turtle nesting population as numbering in the millions - one of the largest in the Atlantic. Today, Ms Blumenthal explained, only a handful of turtles remain.

The DoE's Marine Turtle Research Programme has recorded turtle nesting activity for the past nine years, in order to evaluate the status of nesting populations in each of the three Cayman Islands. The department's research and enforcement staff, along with trained volunteers, survey beaches four days per week throughout the five-month nesting season.

Survey data show that less than ten loggerhead and green turtles nest annually.

Furthermore, "Hawksbill and leatherback turtles, once known to have nested in the Cayman Islands, appear to have gone locally extinct," said Ms. Blumenthal.

"From once representing the largest sea turtle rookery in the Atlantic, the Cayman Islands nesting population has declined to become one of the most endangered, and most urgently in need of protection."

Sea turtles are also threatened by Cayman's legal turtle fishery. As with several other Caribbean countries with a cultural heritage of catching turtle, Cayman issues licenses to a few local traditional turtle fishermen. However, the annual legal catch limit is more than double the number of nesting turtles in Cayman's waters.

The legal sea turtle fishery is closed from May to October; this closed season was intended to protect the nesting population. However, most of the legal catch takes place in April during the breeding period for mature turtles.

According to Ms Blumenthal, "This significantly reduces the number of females making it to shore to lay eggs, and the overall number of adult turtles in our endangered population. Because the nesting population is so low, the loss of even one adult individual to poachers or to the fishery can have tremendous consequences for the future of the species."

Florida's green turtle nests have increased from less than 100 in the 1970's to more than 4000 in recent years, demonstrating that conservation efforts may be effective.

Frequently Asked Questions

Myth: "I see lots of turtles in Cayman; how can they be endangered?"

FACT: We have both young and full-grown turtles in the Cayman Islands. Most people see juvenile turtles when they dive, boat, or fish here. These young turtles are not part of our nesting population - they will migrate elsewhere to nest. Turtles that nest on our beaches are much larger: A full-grown turtle weighs about 350 pounds and has a shell that is more than three feet long. There are only a few breeding turtles left in the Cayman Islands. Though a female can lay more than 100 eggs each time she nests, less than 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survives to adulthood. Therefore, large numbers of young turtles are necessary to support small adult populations.

Myth: Sea turtles stay in the same country all their lives.

FACT: Sea turtles are highly migratory. Every spring, wild sea turtles migrate to the Cayman Islands to nest on our beaches. At the end of the nesting season, these full-grown turtles leave our waters until it is time to return to nest again. Department of Environment sea-turtle satellite tracking research (http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/cayman) has shown that our adult turtles live in Florida, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua during the winter, when they are not nesting in the Cayman Islands.

How can I help?

  • Report anyone harming turtles or eggs to Department of Environment enforcement officers or the Police.
  • Be sure that turtle meat you order in a restaurant or purchase was obtained legally from the Turtle Farm.
  • Do not drive on the beach: You could crush turtle nests or baby turtles.
  • Install turtle-friendly lighting, or turn off unnecessary lights near the beach, from June to November. This prevents hatchlings from crawling toward lights and away from the sea.
  • Do not rake over turtle tracks on the beach. Please call the Department of Environment at 949-8469 if you find a turtle nest or see hatchlings or a nesting turtle.

For further information contact: Ariana Rahamut