"We determined there was the possibility the species could not withstand the pressure from unchecked harvest," said Tim Breault, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"This new rule will conserve Florida's diverse turtle population in perpetuity," said Breault, who directs the FWC's Division of Habitat and Species Conservation.
Reports of large turtle harvests from a lake in Central Florida 18 months ago led the commission to gather representatives of various groups - turtle harvesters, turtle farmers, environmentalists and turtle scientists to determine whether recent levels of harvest of freshwater turtles could continue without harm to the species.
Increased demand for freshwater turtles in Asian and South American markets led stakeholders to the conclusion that the pressure on the species would not abate.
In addition, neighboring states began tightening their freshwater turtle harvest rules, which drew more turtle harvesters into Florida waters.
After FWC staff conducted workshops and consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners, in September 2008, the commission passed an interim rule with some restrictions on the harvest of turtles. By February, the FWC had approved a draft rule, and in June, the Commission passed the final rule that went into effect Monday.
Under the new rule, individuals will be allowed to take one freshwater turtle per day per person from the wild for noncommercial use, and no one can transport more than one turtle per day.
The rule prohibits taking turtles from the wild that are listed on Florida's imperiled species list. People cannot even take species that look similar to the imperiled species, which include common snapping turtles and cooters.
Turtles at the Alligator Farm, St. Augustine, Florida (Photo by Hillarie)
The rule includes a ban on collecting freshwater turtle eggs.
Some turtle farms depend on collection of wild freshwater turtles, the FWC recognized. With the new rule, turtle farms, under a tightly controlled process, will be allowed to collect turtles to establish reproduction in captivity so that farms can become self-sustaining to lessen their dependence on collection of turtles from the wild.
"I believe this industry should be moved to aquaculture. That's the logical place for it to be," said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto. "This is the right thing to do."
Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said today, "The state's historic harvesting ban puts the brakes on an unsustainable industry responsible for up to 150,000 soft-shell turtle exports from the state in the past five years."
But, said Miller, the conservationists at the Center are "disappointed that the Florida ban has a minor loophole which allows licensed turtle farmers to continue to take an unlimited quantity of broodstock turtles until 2011, due to concerns that turtle farms will continue to harvest adult turtles from the wild in unlimited quantities, in an effort to stockpile them before 2011."
There is also concern that harvested broodstock turtles from Florida may be sold to buyers in states where unlimited commercial harvest for food is allowed, he warned.
Still, said Miller, "Florida's regulations will allow wild turtle populations, which are already suffering from the effects of water pollution, road mortality, incidental take from fishery devices, impacts from invasive species, and habitat loss, to rebound."
In 2008, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Texas to ban commercial harvest of all native freshwater turtles.
Other states have taken some protective actions after the Center's petition. Oklahoma enacted a three-year moratorium on commercial harvest from public waters while studying the status of its wild turtle populations, while Georgia is reviewing its harvest regulations.
In 2009 the Center, along with local groups from each state, petitioned wildlife and health agencies in Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee for a ban on commercial harvest of freshwater turtles. Tennessee is not expected to change harvest regulations.
The Center has determined that nine unprotected southern turtle species may warrant listing under the federal Endangered Species Act and is now conducting status reviews for potential listing petitions.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.