Grand Cayman Island—If sea turtle tasted like chicken, I’d fess up, but it really does taste like veal. I grew up occasionally eating mud turtles pulled out of the ponds on my family’s farm. And mud turtle does taste like chicken. (Legs from freshly butchered mud turtles also writhe when you toss a bit of salt on them, as my startled mother once found out.) So I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how delicious well-prepared green sea turtle steak tasted with a port wine reduction sauce at the Over the Edge restaurant during a recent visit to Grand Cayman Island.
I went to Grand Cayman determined to dine on turtle because I was aware of the vexed saga of the Cayman Island Turtle Farm. The farm opened in 1968, established as a for-profit business by U.K. entrepreneur and libertarian hero Antony Fisher and his partners. Turtling has a long history in Cayman Island culture, but by the early 1900s turtle populations in the islands had crashed due to overharvesting. Overharvesting is a huge problem afflicting open access fisheries, and one way to address the problem of overharvested wild turtle populations is to create privately owned, farmed alternatives. Supplying farmed turtle meat and shell products helps to take harvest pressure off of wild turtles.
To start up the turtle farm, Fisher secured breeding adults and eggs from legal collectors. The first turtles raised from eggs obtained from the wild reproduced in 1975 (although Fisher continued to acquire new breeders and wild eggs until 1976). The first second-generation captive turtles were hatched in 1989.
Unfortunately, the idea of selling farmed green sea turtles drove some environmental groups to distraction. The Cayman Island Turtle Farm had the misfortune to begin its operations just as the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was being adopted in 1973. The chief goal of CITES is to regulate commerce in wild species that are threatened with extinction. The idea is that overharvesting of endangered species will stop or be reduced if there are no legal international markets for products made from them. Under the treaty, only animals “bred in captivity for commercial purposes” could be traded. Biologists allied with environmental groups advised the U.S. Department of Interior that a turtle farm could not possibly raise a self-sustaining population of farmed turtles. The U.S. government heeded this counsel and banned the sale of farmed turtle products, instantly killing 80 percent of the Cayman Island Turtle Farm’s market.
The result of the CITES turmoil was that the farm went bankrupt in 1975. It was purchased by a German non-profit group which aimed to sell turtle products and funnel the money back into turtle research and conservation. When the turtle farm had demonstrated that it was in fact breeding a self-sustaining population, opponents of the farm moved the goalposts. In 1979, CITES changed the rules. Captive breeding programs were required to demonstrate that they were “capable of reliably producing second generation offspring in a controlled environment." This further delayed any hope of reopening international markets for the turtle farm’s products. As the CITES restrictions tightened, the German group gave up too, and reduced its stock of turtles. What remained of the farm was purchased by the Cayman Islands government in 1983 and run as a for-profit enterprise.
The U.N. convention was not the only problem faced by the farm. In 2001, 75 percent of the breeders were lost to Hurricane Michelle. Since that time the farm has been modernized (and moved further inland) and has become the biggest land-based tourist attraction in the Cayman Islands. Besides supplying meat to the local market, the farm has pursued conservation goals by releasing more than 31,000 1-year-old headstarted turtles into the ocean. Although there is some promising data, whether or not the turtle releases have significantly increased the number of green sea turtles living in the wild is not well-established at this time. Some environmentalists object to the release of the turtles because the farm’s breeding population was gathered from many areas and they fear that “hybrid” turtles will affect local wild populations.
Supporters of CITES often argue that the sale of products from farm raised animals pose a danger to wild populations because products from wild caught animals can be surreptitiously slipped into the stream of commerce. But certification programs of the type pioneered by environmental organizations such as the Marine Stewardship Council’s sustainable fisheries and Forest Stewardship Council’s sustainable forest eco-labels would go a long way toward addressing that concern.
The Cayman Island Turtle Farm’s breeding stock is nearly at the goal of 500 mature animals, producing 45,000 eggs annually, of which only 8,000 hatchlings are needed to meet local market demand. The farm hosts thousands of visitors and allows them the pleasure of holding 12-18 month-old turtles. The farm slaughters 32 turtles per week with each animal supplying about 125 pounds of meat. Sea turtle is not cheap. Turtle steak sells for $33 per pound and stew meat goes for $20. Since sea turtle products cannot be sold internationally, no items made of turtle shell are available.
Once I had tasted sea turtle, I was eager to try other preparations. Sadly, I discovered that it was possible to ruin sea turtle. I had the Cayman-style turtle steak (tomato pepper sauce) at the pricey Grand Old House restaurant where it was overcooked into dry tastelessness. Had that been my first experience eating sea turtle, it would have been my last. Luckily, the Cayman Island Agricultural Show was being held during my visit—the moral equivalent of a nice laid back county fair—so I got to sit at a picnic table while eating turtle stew made by the ladies from one of the local churches. Their spicy, delicious turtle stew contains not only meat, but a kind of slightly chewy gelatinous protein rendered from the bony plates of the carapace and plastron. If commerce in sea turtle products is one day permitted, one can easily imagine the spread of turtle farming throughout the Caribbean, with concomitant conservation benefits. Sea turtle: the other white meat.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books. This column first appeared at Reason.com.