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Sea Turtle Tastes Like Veal

Can eating endangered species help save them?

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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.

Ron Bailey with turtle

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.

Cayman turtles

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.

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  1. I just have to commend Ron’s willingness to go the distance for stories like this. Traveling to the Caymans to conduct on-the-ground research and face-to-face interviews was surely a weighty burden. Kudos, sir.

    1. Next week, Ron travels to Bali to explore free market solutions to Muslim Buddhist relations.

      1. I’ll be a pedantic douchebag and tell you that Bali is more likely to be Muslim-Hindu relations. Bali is Hindu majority.

    2. Hey, I’ve been to Grand Cayman Island* and let me tell you it was no picnic.

      A weeklong party of barbeques, snorkeling and beer swilling, but no picnic.

      * Courtesy of the generous American taxpayer’s commitment to a strong three ocean navy. Thanks.

      1. Going next month.

        I can haz turdle?

  2. So it seems the environmentalists are simply being shelfish.

    1. Da dum tishhhhhh….

      he’ll be here all week folks!

  3. Of course, if eating individual turtles can save the species, then it’s a good thing.
    Kind of like MNG’s philosophy, only with turtles instead of people.

    1. BTW, where is that Shit Facktory today?

  4. Green and Loggerhead info and webcam
    http://www.marinelife.org
    They treat turtles that were hit by boats and things like that.

  5. Environmental cases: never happy, not even with success.

  6. Sea turtle steak, and spotted owl eggs!

    *smacks lips*

    1. Sea turtles? Are those like sea kittens?

  7. 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.

    Some environmentalis are fucking idiots. By that logic, we should ban horse racing to protect the endangered Przewalski’s Horse.

    1. Killing anything in order to eat it is wrong. Every life is precious.

      1. Killing anything in order to eat it is wrong. Every life is precious delicious.

        FTFY

      2. Tell that to a tiger.

    2. Scientific evidence backs up the original argument. Crocodiles throughout eastern asia became extinct in many areas due to the opening of crocodile farms.

      Its not environmentalists that are are idiots it the ignorant fools like yourself.

      1. Really? Crocodiles became locally extinct due to the crocodile farms, not coincident with the crocodile farms? In the USA, crocodiles and alligators were nearly hunted to extinction. The only source of alligator products for many years was farming. Alligator farms played a key role in the conservation of alligators. Now there are alligators aplenty. And alligator farms. You can eat alligator at many restaurants. It tastes just like chicken. Sooooo… hard to claim that farming an animal that is threatened by hunting pressure will drive it to extinction.

        There are many issues with salmon farming, but many of the salmon runs have recovered even as salmon farming has boomed. There are definitely precedents for the notion that farmed sea turtles could reduce the pressure on the wild populations, although intentional hunting doesn’t seem to be the largest pressure anymore.

        1. Thats all well and good in the western world where legeslation into endangered animals is policed (to a relatively decent level) but in other parts of the world selling wild caught animals can create a vast increase of income making it a “high profit low risk” enterprise and farming creates a legal market to sell illegally caught species.

      2. It couldn’t have been burgeoning population? Did rhinos and tigers become concurrently extinct due to rhino and tiger farming? Also isn’t it possible that people don’t like dangerous animals living near them?

        Can you gives us a link to the scientific paper?

        1. Here are a couple of scientific papers:

          A population survey of the estuarine crocodile in the Ayeyarwady Delta, Myanmar
          http://www3.interscience.wiley…..p;SRETRY=0

          Status of the Siamese crocodile in Vietnam
          http://www3.interscience.wiley…..7/abstract

          There is also an IUCN review but its quite old (1993) entitled “Preliminary surveys of crocodilians in Thailand. In: Crocodiles” However I can not find this any more

  8. The tuna just doesn’t taste as good since they started using dolphin friendly nets. Once upon a time tuna used to be the other red meat.

    1. But the dolphin tastes delicious.

  9. I’ve been to the Cayman Islands. Nice place for journalism.

  10. “Sea turtle: the other white meat.”

    That’s racist.

  11. Sea turtle… tastes like children.

    I mean chicken.

    Sorry.

    CB

    1. Sounds delicious!

    2. Back in the late 80’s I went to the China Garden in East Grand Forks, MN. I’d been there many times before and was well liked by the owners. One day I go in and they are very excited to show me their new menu. None of the dishes had changed, they just bought new menus. Anyway, the moo goo gai pan was described as being made from brest of children. I’ve never forgotten that.

      I wnet in there with a group of people once and one of the guys in our party ordered a hamburger. I’d never before and never since seen anyone do that in a chinese restaurant.

      BTW, after the 1997 flood, it moved across the Red River to Grand Forks, ND.

      http://www.tripadvisor.com/Sho…..akota.html

      1. I have a huge soft spot for brand-new immigrants, because of multiple encounters like that.

      2. “BTW, after the 1997 flood, it moved across the Red River to Grand Forks, ND.”

        Did the flood take it across the river, or was it just a business decision?

  12. Of course this couldn’t work. Just like the commercial alligator farms in Florida don’t work. Oh, wait…

  13. Back when I lived in the Florida Keys I got to try turtle steak twice.

    One was at a restaurant in Key Colony Beach and it was not at all great. Greasy and kind of rubbery. Someone told me that the Place to go was The Green Turtle Inn in Islamorada. That made the difference, just like veal, as Mr Bailey says.

    The source of both of these was the turtle farm in the Caymans cited in the post.

    There were many allegations unfortunately, though, that poaching was rampart and that some restaurants were buying Green and Loggerhead Turtles taken in the wild. This was part of what led to the US Government ban which was extremely unpopular locally.

    Ron, I’m not sure I quite understood your timeline. Farmed turtle steaks were being sold legally until 1979. It was the Federal government ban that shut down the trade, unless I am very much mistaken.

    Incedentally, turtle farming was a big business in the Keys in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Crawl Key was named for the pens (kraals) where sea turtles were held. The wiki article linked says these were wildcaught turtles but my understanding is that there was farming going on in later times. I have seen the name Kraal Key used as well.

    1. To clarify, it seems the US governement allowed the importation of meat from farmed green turtle until 1979. Then they banned even the farmed product due to allegations that wild turtles were being taken and sold by fisherman in the Keys and elsewhere in the Carribean.

      Most people though that was bunk and that the controls on turtle hunting were more than adequate. That is, people other than those that didn’t think it was any of the govt’s godamn business, of which there were more than a few in the Keys in those days.

      It’s said that the word “Key” is a corruption of the Spanish “cayo” meaning island. Be that as it may, it is certainly true that corruption is very much a way of life in the Florida Keys.

      There is a long tradition of outlawry in the island chain from pirates in the 18th century and “salvagers” in the 19th to rumrunners in the 20s and pot smugglers in the 70s.

      You wouldn’t know it from the uptight fatcats that live there now. Housing is so expensive that they have to load the household and hotel help on busses in Homestead at five o’clock in the morning to bring them in to clean the place up.

      1. Yeah, but they throw one hell of a party the weekend before Halloween. Even if it is getting a little to corporate and mainstream.

  14. That turtle is so cute, I don’t think I could eat one.

    1. They are nice looking animals, as turtles go, but I heard from a guy who caught a large one in a shrimp net (in the days before exclusion devices) that their breath is unbelievably foul.

    2. They’re actually huge when they’re old enough to be butchered. It’s like the difference between the litle big-eyed calf and a big ugly steer.

      But then it’s the cute litle big-eyed calves that they kill for veal, isn’t it?

      I’ve never seen a Green Turtle in the wild but I believe they’re about the same size as Loggerheads, which I have.

      1. I’ve been scuba diving in Hawaii with green sea turtles.. they can get pretty big. They amble over to you, and once they realize you have no food for them, they turn around and leave.

      2. “but I believe they’re about the same size as Loggerheads, which I have.”

        And you’ve won many bar bets and locker room contests too, right?

      3. Went to a place in Curacao where you can ‘dive’ with sea turtles and sharks, in an enclosed lagoon separated by a plexiglass divider about 3/4 or an inch thick. Heads on those suckers are rather large – if they’d had the chance, they could probably take a whole hand in one munch, not just a couple of fingers. You could feed the critters bait fish through small holes in the divider – the sharks were just dead eyed killing machines that would swoop by and graze. The turtles, otoh, would watch you approach, and follow your hand with their gaze as you pulled a fish out of your pouch, and brought it to the hole.

  15. How about building a pit and old time rotisserie for manatees? I’m certain the sailors relished these after a long trip across the ocean and being called a sea cow, a lazy animal that eats sea foliage, I’m certain that it’s the catsass. All those manatees died in florida from the cold but I’m absolutely certain that none ended up at missions feeding the homeless…. what a waste of protein!

    I’m into the history of food and I can tell you that Green turtle is definately on my bucket list of menu items. There’s a reason that Green Turtle, like manatee was prized.

  16. I have a friend who is trying to procure a penguin to put on the barbeque.

    And I’m pretty sure that more than one of my neighbors wouldn’t hesitate to bag a Spotted Owl if one came in their gunsights. I heard they taste like Bald Eagle.

    … Hobbit

    1. Your friend could always travel to Iceland for some puffin. Having had puffin, I’d imagine they taste the same as penguins.

  17. I spent part of a summer in Costa Rica at a turtle preservation project. The biggest problem for the turtles in that area was natural predation, with human poaching relatively rare. We weren’t as smart as the Koati’s, so we couldn’t do much about the predators. The last thing the organization wanted was for its volunteers to get in a fight with poachers, and there was no one to call, so we couldn’t do anything when the poachers did show up except embarrass them. I don’t think that I was with the best outfit, but if it was any indication, rescue efforts aren’t going to get you very far.

    It’s funny, because hearing about Ron eating sea turtle fills me with rage. There’s no particular reason for it; it sounds like the farm is helping sea turtles as a species, and while they are very cool and very old, they struck me as some of the dumbest animals I’ve ever encountered (though with extraordinary navigational abilities; animal intelligence isn’t quite the same as ours.) I’m a vegan, but hearing about someone eating cow just doesn’t bug me the way that this article bugged me. I think this is the reaction that makes environmentalists so against stuff like this, but I really can’t explain where it comes from other than that a species that we’ve exalted as beautiful isn’t treated with respect.

    1. Yes, it is hard to get people to accept the killing of animals for any reason that aren’t outside the ‘canon’ of acceptance: mice, rats, cattle, chickens, turkeys, sheep, goats, pigs.

      Even a lot of scientists, especially ones involved in conservation schemes, have problems with scientific specimen collecting. It’s an interesting human emotion that can be so powerful as to expose yet another irrational side of our ‘nature’.

  18. I was so suprised to see this article! I have half-jokingly talked about how eating endangered species would save them.

    No other way to say it: fucking awesome. I love when things I have pondered come up somewhere.

  19. What a pile of rubbish. How can selling turtle steak at $33 per pound prevent poaching from poorer communities.

    1. Tony Irons: One possibility is that if trade was legal more turtles would be farmed and the price would go down.

      1. Legal trade of endangered species has in the past had detrimental effects on species populations. As stated earlier the legalisation of crocodile farms in Thailand has led to the extintions of wild crocodilies, not only, in Thailand, but also in Vietnam and Burma as this created an output for illegally wild caught conspecifics.

    2. Why couldn’t the poorer communities farm sea turtles too? Do you just think they’re idiots that have to be taken care of? Why do you hate the poor?

      1. No I just think your an idiot

    3. “What a pile of rubbish. How can selling turtle steak at $33 per pound prevent poaching from poorer communities.”

      Ah. Free market! Soon they’ll be sold as Happy Meals for $1.49

  20. Personally I think environmentalists want both a diversity of life but also that it perserves is randomness (idealogies are separated merely by what is supposed to be random and what is supposed to be fixed). Preserving a species only to be a food supply doesn’t meet the second qualification.

  21. I’ve been to that Turtle Farm a few times. I was put off from eating it though as the tour lets you hold and pet the turtles, then ask you if you want to buy turtle soup. I was just petting them and admiring them, so I had not interest eating one immediately after that.

  22. Also… the reason the one steak was overcooked in the article is that turtles, like chicken, have salmonella and need to be cooked thoroughly. I know when a chicken is cooked but I’m certain that turtle meat requires a longer cook time.

  23. Moas, Elephant Birds and several other ancient and extinct ratitic birds have recently had their DNA retreived from well-preserved eggshells.

    Presumably colonizing humans to these human-free labs of evolution caused their rather rapid extinction. Some feel that it would be unethical to exploit them in a future where science could bring them back to life. I ask why. Why would it be unethical when their extinction was caused by humans with an undeveloped marketplace of ideas and trade that also predated the concept of ethics as we know it?

  24. “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.”

    It’s also far more expensive to hunt than to farm. That’s why humanity has almost entirely switched from hunting to farming. Duh. Anyone ever hear of wild venison being slipped into the supply of beef? I don’t think so.

    The facts are well documented and readily available. The statists shall kill us all with their ignorance in time if they are not stopped.

    Just in case anyone reading this has access to sea turtles and an espresso machine:

    Sea Turtle Latte

    Ingredients:

    1 small sea turtle, cleaned and cooked

    8-12 oz highest quality milk or cream obtainable (use more for a larger turtle)

    4 oz hot water

    4 oz turtle steak

    1 oz turtle steak

    1-2 T. turtle fat or drippings

    4 oz hot water

    1 T. white honey

    white pepper

    sea salt

    4+ oz espresso

    Preparation:

    Chop the 4 oz turtle meat and add to the 4 hot water. Soak 15-30 minutes or more. Strain and retain both meat and turtle water.

    Pour the milk into a pitcher, add the meat, fat, white honey, salt and pepper to taste.

    Preheat the turtle shell with hot water. Empty. Add the turtle meat – water mixture to the turtle shell. Pour 4 oz espresso on top and steam the turtle milk. Strain the turtle milk and add the meat to the turtle Americano. Pour the turtle milk on top of that & garnish with the sliced turtle.

    Serve or enjoy!

  25. 99% of all life that has ever been on Earth is extinct. Extinction is a part of life. They come and they go. Losing a species is not the end of the world and it’s a waste of time and money to try and “save” them. It’s amazing to me that those who have read Darwin and doesn’t understand what he says.

    1. Wow really ben? Why don’t the human race become extinct? If you are supposed to bear any semblance to the human species, it had better be decimated as a degraded loser specimen.

  26. Ben, why would someone need to read Darwin to grasp the nuance of species extinction, which is continually being researched?

    Actually, it’s people like you who bastardize science concepts in attempt to lull people into believing that there aren’t real problems.

    The same simplistic tactics are used when discussing Global Warming, which your humble Science correspondent Ronald Bailey conceded was real. Or did he change his mind again? I guess we’ll have to ask Exxon.

    Yes, species go instinct throughout time, but there are factors that can accelerate that extinction at a rate that negatively affects ecosystems. The goal here is species diversity for the management of ecosystems. We have some power to mitigate those accelerated extinctions, since we are actively affecting the imbalance.

    None of this is controversial. It’s basic science.

    Conservative/Libertarians should really stay away from science topics. Their intent to dumb them down, so that the public becomes confused, and thus complacent about them, is exactly the type of strategy that Creationist supporters use to defend their arguments.

    I think concerned people would rather listen to the scientists doing the actual research than some flippant comment from Ben the Libertarian.

    You made no attempt to address any such that nuance in your post.

  27. I’ve had freshwater turtle soup (Asian style) before and it kinda did taste like chicken.

    Surprising to see how their Sea faring cousins taste like Veal!

  28. I just need this, Well done! Many thanks.

  29. This is fascinating. I had no idea that eating endangered species like the turtle could help save their lives. I still feel kinda sad about it, but better.

  30. Awesome job Ron, thanks for the great post!

  31. Excellet job Ronald, I hope someday they really do allow for unregulated turtle farming!

  32. What an interesting story,well, more of an adventure really. It’s so great to hear that things are going well for them and that they are making their goals. Any word on the effect they’ve had on the development of the wild population?

  33. Veal, huh? That’s pretty surprising. I don’t know that it’s a reasonable assumption, but I always expected sea turtle to taste like a clam or some other chewy, mildly fishy meat. Also, not sure about @Patriot Henry’s Sea Turtle Latte. Seems a little wrong to me.

  34. It’s worrying that you would eat a turtle!
    Lithuania

  35. stop eating turtles, they are becoming extinct. there are lots of other meat in the world. preserve these creatures please…

  36. Great Job! Thanks very much for the post on turtles.

  37. I have never tasted sea turtle ever. But after reading your post, I am just too eager to have it and find out if it really taste like a veal.

  38. I have never tasted turtle but after reading your post, I am just too eager to have it and find out if it really taste like a veal or not.

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  41. Turtles are so very cool. Thanks for the post.

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  44. That meal sounds amazing, kind of like one I had in Boca Grande. I really like the hotels I stayed in there.

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  48. We found a little turtle in the river just down the road from our zorb track. I think someone must have got sick of it and dumped it, so we orphaned it.

  49. Turtles are so very cool. Thanks for the post.

  50. I actually ate a sea turtle when I was in Borneo, and must say they do taste delicious. Wouldn’t think so, but they do!

  51. I actually had a sea turtle when I was in Borneo, and they taste absolutely delicious!

  52. Great post. You make eating endangered animals sound good.

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  54. I was surprised. These men are supposed to shameless and the next step is supposed to be FOX.

  55. Hello Rob! Yes, the Cayman Islands are a wonderful place to recharge energy. Last summer we had a wine tasting offering turtle meat appetizers. Thank you for sharing,
    Peter

  56. Ditto on that. impartial Commission make sure you.

  57. I’m sure that they do taste like veal, but I can’t imagine eating one. I think it would hurt my conscious too much.

  58. Turtle steak dusted in seasoned flour and pan fried served with a lemon beur blanc sauce is the way to go. Try It 🙂

  59. Turtle steak dusted in seasoned flour and fried and served with a lemon beur blanc sauce is out of this world!

  60. Favorite Turtle Steak Recipe – dusted in seasoned flour and fried and served with a lemon beur blanc sauce is out of this world!

  61. This is disgusting. A restaurant here in San Clemente sold turtle and got busted. Good riddance.

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