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Southern and Midwestern Freshwater Turtles
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, March 14, 2009

State wildlife panel proposes ban on Florida's wild turtle trade
Freshwater species' meat is sold in Asian markets
By David Fleshler

A round-the-world trade in Florida's wild turtles would be shut down under a proposal by the state wildlife commission to protect them from the demand for their meat in China, Vietnam and other Asian countries.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Friday announced a proposal to ban the commercial catch of freshwater turtles, a business that takes place in the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and the lakes and rivers of Central Florida. The proposal would not apply to farm-raised turtles and still requires approval by the commission.

"Few places in North America have the rich diversity of turtles that we have here in Florida," said Tim Breault, the commission's director of habitat and species conservation. "And this proposed rule ensures their long-term survival."

Matt Aresco, a turtle expert in the Florida Panhandle, said in a statement that the plan would "provide excellent protection for Florida's wild turtles."

However, Lasonda Jones, manager of Jones Fish House, a seafood wholesaler on the impoverished Palm Beach County shore of Lake Okeechobee, said the ban would put people out of work when there are few other options.

"This is something you could do without education, without references," said Jones, who buys turtles from fishermen and sells them to exporters. "You don't have to have a lot of money, just lines and hooks. It's an honest living. A hard living, but an honest living. What are they going to do? Go on welfare."

Wan To Ho, a seafood exporter in Tamarac and originally from China, had been identified by the state wildlife commission as a major exporter of turtles, with as many as 1,500 a week leaving Florida through Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Reached by phone, he said he supports the ban, saying he doesn't want to hurt the turtle population.

He has established a turtle farm near Clewiston on Lake Okeechobee, he said. Since the proposed ban would not apply to farm-raised turtles, he still would have a supply to export to China.

"My business will keep going," he said. "I don't worry about it."

The commission imposed a 20-turtle daily limit last September.

However, environmentalists said that wasn't strict enough.

Gov. Charlie Crist wrote a letter to the commissioners urging them to ban the trade.

The commission, a seven-member board appointed by the governor, will consider the proposal at its April 15 meeting.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton