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Southern and Midwestern Freshwater Turtles
Environment News Service, April 16, 2009

Florida Proposes Ban on Commercial Freshwater Turtle Harvest

TALLAHASSEE, Florida - Florida moved toward adopting stronger conservation measures for the harvest of freshwater turtles at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting on Wednesday.

FWC commissioners directed staff to finalize a draft rule that bans the commercial take or sale of wild freshwater turtles in both public and private waters. The draft rule will be considered for approval at the commission's June meeting in Crystal River.

Agency staff advised the commission at its April meeting to accept language of a proposed rule to close turtle harvest in both types of waters after receiving an emergency rulemaking request in March 2008 from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, and the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

"When staff members began hearing reports of large harvests of freshwater turtles from Florida waters, they brought the concerns to the commission," said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto. "As conservation managers, going forward with these measures is the right thing to do."

Tim Breault, the FWC's director of habitat and species conservation, presented the draft rule to the Commission.

"This draft rule represents the most comprehensive set of protections and conservation measures for freshwater turtles in the United States," Breault said. "Few places in North America have the rich diversity of turtles that we have here in Florida, and this proposed rule ensures their long-term survival."

The draft rule would prohibit taking turtles from the wild that are listed on Florida's imperiled species list, as well as species that look similar to the imperiled species, which include common snapping turtles and cooters. In addition, collecting freshwater turtle eggs would be prohibited.

Individuals would be allowed to take one freshwater turtle per day per person from the wild for noncommercial use. The transport of more than one turtle per day would be prohibited.

Some turtle farms depend on collection of wild freshwater turtles. Under the proposed draft rule, turtle farms, under a tightly controlled process, would be allowed to collect turtles for breeding purposes for a two-year period.

Staff is proposing a review of this process by 2011, and turtle collection for farms will end if no further action is taken by the Commission after the review.

"This is the most significant conservation measure we have passed during my time on the commission," said Commissioner Brian Yablonski. "Floridians will never know it, because we are averting a crisis."

The FWC has an open, public process for developing rules. It will advertise the draft rule for a final hearing at the meeting in Crystal River on June 17. The public may submit comments to the FWC anytime during this rulemaking process to turtles@MyFWC.com and may testify at the June meeting.

The petitioning groups say the proposed rule does not go far enough.

While closing commercial harvest is a historic first step in moving towards protective legislation for turtles in Florida, conservation concerns remain, since 25 turtle farmers in Florida will continue to be allowed to harvest an unlimited number of wild turtles as “broodstock” until 2011.

“The appetite for turtles in Asia remains insatiable and we have evidenced the exploitation of millions of wild turtles reaped from the South, on a scale that is comparable the buffalo slaughters of the 1800s,” said Chris Jones, a conservation attorney representing the groups that asked the Commission to prohibit turtle harvest.

“Each year thousands of turtles are taken from the wild and stockpiled by turtle farmers under the auspices of broodstock," said Jones. "While we commend the Commission’s efforts to protect turtles in Florida, unlimited collection for broodstock is a gaping loophole that will continue to threaten turtle populations.”

The conservation and public health groups asked the commission to prohibit turtle harvesting for two reasons - for the conservation of native turtle species and in order to protect the health of people who may eat turtle meat. Levels of polychlorinated biphenyls found in some snapping turtles exceeded consumption thresholds by 300 percent, the groups say.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, are a mixture of more than 200 individual chemicals which are no longer produced in the United States, but are still found in the environment. Health effects include neurobehavioral and immunological changes in children. PCBs are known to cause cancer in animals.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton