Sea turtle sanctuary goes under in controversy

POSTED: 08/6/15 7:02 PM


St. Maarten – Rory and Rachelle Mostert had great plans for a sea turtle rescue center in St. Maarten last year, but the project has fallen apart. The Mosterts, a retired American couple, say in an email that gives an extensive account of their ventures, that they invested $20,000 more than the agreed upon investment in the project, but that in the end, they did not get the cooperation they needed from  the Nature Foundation and from a British partner in the project, Anthony Rowett.

“This is the story of our plight to do good and how we were denied the chance to help the sea turtles of St. Maarten,” reads the first line of Rory Mostert’s account. Before diving into the conflict that led to the demise of the center, he notes that in 2013, St. Maarten reported 37 sick and injured sea turtles. “The Nature Foundation sent three of them by air to Guadeloupe for treatment at a cost of around $7,000 each. The rest were put back in the ocean to fend for themselves or die as they did not have the funds or facilities to care for more turtles.”

Mostert writes that he was ready to move to St. Maarten with his wife to build veterinary facilities and a place to regroup for sea turtles. The plan was to offer free educational tours to all schools, to get children involved in the rescue operations and to cover veterinary bills from eco-tourism.

“Future plans included satellite tagging, a research center and internet-based turtle nest watching with infrared solar powered cameras,” Mostert writes.

Mostert hooked up with Anthony Nigel Rowett of Fun Factor NV, a company that does business as Coconut Reef Snorkel Tours in Simpson Bay. The sea turtle sanctuary would operate under Rowett’s business license.

Once the paperwork was in order, Mostert found a location on Modesta Road, opposite the Sr. Regina Primary School in Simpson Bay. Together with his wife Rachel he proceeded to design and build the sanctuary. It included three large ponds and twelve smaller sick bays. Mostert says he brought on board a marina biologist and two vets with specialized knowledge of sea turtles.

A meeting with Nature Foundation’s manager Tadzio Bervoets was, according to Mostert, “successful’ in the sense that the foundation offered its full support. An advertising campaign was to reward citizens with $25 for each injured sea turtle they brought to the sanctuary. The Mosterts wanted their sanctuary to be up and running before the FCCA cruise conference that took place in October of last year.

By the end of September, the sanctuary was ready to receive its first sea turtles. According to Mostert, things went sour in a meeting he had with Bervoets at that moment: “To our dismay they turned around and accused us of trying to get healthy sea turtles and that they will not support us having any captive turtles.”

Mostert denied that this was the intention and the Nature Foundation said in an email soon after that it would issue a letter of clarification about its position. Mostert says he never received such a letter. “Marine biologist Rikke Bachmann, a board member of the Nature Foundation, informed us about a unanimous decision not to support us,” Mostert writes.

The decision also put a strain on Mostert’s relationship with Anthony Rowett, who suggested turning the sanctuary into a restaurant. Rowett also wanted to pull out of the project to be rid of his share in the lease for the property.

Mostert claims that he received threats of criminal charges and lawsuits from the legal advisors of the Nature Foundation. Looking at the makeup of the foundation’s board, Mostert writes: “Everything was getting a little scary as we were definitely out of our depth with the political power that they have on their side. Rowett started to really panic and went directly to Widecast.”

Widecast is the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network. Mostert’s statement does not say what the effect of these contacts was.

Towards the end of October, the Mosterts realized that their sanctuary was never going to open. Having spent already $20,000 more than the agreed upon investment, Mostert called on his partners to pick up their share of the tab. “Rowett became quite aggressive in his approach towards the Nature Foundation,” Mostert writes.

Later, Rowett wanted to get out of the project altogether. “He would like me to take over the lease and remove his name from it because I had less to loose and according to him it was less likely that the landlord would come after me for the lease money,” Mostert writes, adding that this request ended the partnership.

According to Mostert, Rowett subsequently offered his 50 percent stake in the venture to the Nature Foundation, giving it full control of the sanctuary.

Rowett in the meantime drafted a letter to the Minister of Tourism and Economic Affairs at the time, Ted Richardson. “Rowett felt that Richardson would dictate to Mr. Bervoets to work a deal with us,” Mostert writes. “I told him I was shocked at the stupidity of his actions and that he had probably blown the last chance we had of saving the sanctuary.”

Mostert furthermore cites supportive emails from Karen Eckert, the executive director of Widecast and Jessica Berkel, the marine park manager in Statia.

But it was not to be. Mostert recounts a meeting with the Nature Foundation board on November 7 of last year where board member Lucas Berman “was quite aggressive in his manner.” Mostert cited Berman as saying in this meeting, “Sick or injured, we will never permit you to put sea turtles in your sanctuary.”

Only three weeks earlier, Rowett had told Mostert that the Nature Foundation was “adamant to see the sanctuary succeed.” Mostert is now wondering who misled him – Rowett or the foundation.

“The Nature Foundation is not interested in saving sick and injured turtles in a purpose-built center at no cost whatsoever to them. They prefer to medicate them on the beach, then put them back in the water to sort themselves out. I am not reliant on them looking after me in my old age,” Mostert notes indignantly.

The couple has now given up on its dream: “Time to call it a day. All this will probably cause a lot of arguments and finger pointing but this is a true account of what has happened,” Mostert writes, adding that he has documents, recordings and emails to back up his statements. “I accept I will get a bit of flak for publishing this but I felt that people have a right to know who and what they are dealing with.”

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