A measure that would prohibit the commercial harvest of freshwater turtles in the wild received preliminary approval from the state's wildlife agency on Wednesday.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously to move forward with a proposed rule intended to protect turtles and halt increasing shipments of turtles to Asia for food. The agency enacted a temporary rule last fall and began work on the proposed rule after Gov. Charlie Crist sent a letter urging action.
From 2000 to 2005, turtles shipped from the United States increased dramatically. Exports of common snapping turtles were up 1,200 percent while the shipment of softshell turtles climbed by 270 percent. Biologists and Commissioner Brian Yablonski compared the turtle harvest to the near extinction of bison in the 1800s on the plains of North America.
"I think this is probably, as a commission, one of the most significant conservation measures we will pass in my time on the commission," Yablonski said. "Fortunately, Floridians will never know how significant it is because the crisis will never materialize."
But some turtle collectors and operators of commercial turtle farms said the measure was too restrictive and could put them out of business. Agency officials said the rule, which they called the most restrictive in the nation, was intended to encourage turtle farming to replace the harvesting of turtles in the wild.
The draft rule will be considered for approval at the commission's June 17-18 meeting in Crystal River.
Also Wednesday, a group of conservation organizations said they are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service to force action quickly to protect threatened and endangered sea turtles from death and injury in the Gulf of Mexico. Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and a coalition of conservation groups are urging the federal agency to impose immediate protections for species imperiled by the Gulf's bottom longline fishery.
But at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting in Tallahassee, agency officials said many of the freshwater turtles that are being taken in Florida are not classified as threatened or endangered. Scientists said little is known about their populations because those species are difficult to monitor.
In China, one species of softshell turtle is down to the last two individuals, another species is essentially gone and two others are in decline, said Peter Meylan of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. Scientists said Florida shouldn't wait for turtles here to disappear before taking action.
"If we allowed it, the Chinese -- more than 1 billion Chinese -- could and probably would eat every single turtle in existence in Florida in one year," biologist Dale Jackson said.
But some turtle farmers, who take turtles from the wild to increase their breeding stock, said the Chinese have begun farming their own turtles and that will reduce demand in the future. They also said there was no scientific evidence to show that harvesting was taking a toll on Florida turtles.
"We've gone from almost no regulation to very severe, restrictive regulation proposed here very quickly," said Daniel Parker of Haines City, who said he is a small-scale seller of turtles.
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