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Southern freshwater turtles

The Florida Times-Union, September 17, 2008

State puts limit on freshwater turtles
By Dierdre Conner

Freshwater turtles could be in big trouble.

That's what the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided Wednesday when it approved an emergency rule to limit the number of turtles harvested in the state.

The commission heard from conservationists and turtle fishermen about the largely unregulated industry, which in recent months has sparked concern in Florida.

The new rule limits turtle takes to five per person per day, except for commercial fishermen with a license, who may take 20 soft-shell turtles per person per day. In the meantime, the commission is undertaking a comprehensive turtle study, scheduled to be complete for freshwater turtles in a year.

Previously, the harvest of freshwater turtles was virtually unregulated. The state does ban harvest of river cooters (large, freshwater turtles), soft-shell turtles and their eggs during the early summer, which is nesting season.

The state has virtually no idea how many turtles are harvested each year. Commercial harvesters are not required to report their take to state officials.

The market for turtles has dramatically increased in recent years because of demand from Asia, mostly China. Most turtles are exported to Asia, where the meat is a delicacy, or to Asian immigrant populations in the United States. Some species have also become popular as pets.

Commercial harvesting of freshwater turtles has been banned in many other Southeastern states. That's put pressure on Florida, where the take is unlimited, said Joseph Butler, a University of North Florida biologist and researcher.

"Turtle harvesting is non-sustainable," he told the commission. "Asian countries have overharvested to the point where most of the turtle species are endangered or extinct. So they're buying them from us."

The move was an interim measure while the commission studies what's happening with Florida turtles. But advocates say it doesn't go far enough - they say turtle harvests should be banned altogether until more information can be gathered.

Earlier this year, the Center For Biological Diversity and the St. Johns Riverkeeper filed an emergency petition to put a moratorium on turtle harvesting, saying that to do otherwise could lead the population of some species to collapse. At the same time, a group of Florida biologists submitted their own petition. A similar effort is under way in Georgia.

Researchers are especially concerned because of the way a turtle's life story differs from other animals. They take 8 to 15 years before they can reproduce and live for decades, so taking adults has a disproportionate impact on populations.

But commercial fishermen disputed that, and asked for the limit to be raised to 20.

A five-per-day limit would extinguish the livelihood of people who catch turtles for a living, said John Thomas, a Polk County fisherman and turtle dealer.

© Copyright The Florida Times-Union.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton