Friday, March 13, 2009

Wildlife agency proposes turtle harvest ban

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is proposing what it says is the most comprehensive rule in the United States to protect freshwater turtles.

In response to biologists' concerns that turtles were being shipped to Asian markets for food, the agency staff is proposing a rule to ban the commercial take or sale of wild freshwater turtles. The draft rule also would prohibit taking turtles from the wild that are listed on Florida's imperiled species list.

The draft rule will be considered by the commission at its April 15 meeting in Tallahassee.

"I think the rule is great," said biologist Matt Aresco, who signed a letter with other biologists last year calling for an end to the commercial harvest of turtles. "It is going to be the best rule in the country to protect freshwater turtles if indeed it is adopted by commissioners."

Individuals could still collect one turtle per day. Common snapping turtles and cooters are among the turtles that could not be collected because they are on the imperiled species list or they look like species that are on the list.

Concerns were raised last year after The Gainesville Sun reported on concerns about large numbers of turtles being harvested in sacks from Newnan's Lake near Gainesville. Thirty-four scientists, including Aresco, sent a letter to the commission a year ago asking for restrictions on turtle harvesting, saying that the commercial take was unsustainable and was a threat the future of some species.

''For the same reason that it is illegal to kill female sea turtles on a nesting beach, it is a very bad idea to take adult turtles in large numbers from any ecosystem,'' the scientists said. ``Turtles are extremely slow to reproduce and have very low success rates of nests and hatchlings.''

There was no limit on the unlisted turtle harvest other than closed seasons until October, when the commission in October voted to allow five turtles to be harvested per day and 15 softshell turtles. But that prompted criticism from the biologists and environmentalists. Turtle harvesters argued there were plenty of turtles in the state's waterways.

But Gov. Charlie Crist in November wrote to the commission asking for an end to harvesting. Staff determined that the continued harvesting was a threat to turtle populations.

“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,” Tim Breault, the commission's director of habitat and species conservation, said in a news release.

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