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One softshell turtle business in Florida is shell-shocked

EAGLE LAKE — His front yard is a huge hole. His back yard is an even bigger pit, 8 feet deep and wider than his new house. Tim Thomas dug the holes personally.

To hold the turtles.

"They don't like it when you look at 'em," he says, scanning the back pond the other day. "And it's cold for 'em today. They wouldn't even eat."

They're swimming under the sandy water, burrowed into the steep banks — more than 1,000 softshell turtles. He caught them himself.

"Never meant to keep 'em," he says.

• • •

Thomas, 51, has been fishing for freshwater turtles in Polk County "since I was in my mama's belly. She was nine months pregnant with me when she brought in 3,000 pounds one night. Her best haul ever."

She'd tie a line across the creek, string dozens of hooks along it, skewer trash fish on the barbs. The next night, she'd come back and unhook the live softshells, chop their heads off with an ax. "She chopped the front seat right out of my daddy's boat," Thomas says. Then she'd slice off their shells, carve out the meat, take it home and pan-fry it. "Tastes better than steak," Thomas swears.

In the 1930s his grandpa sold freshwater turtles from his front stoop. His daddy still sells turtles — and turtle meat — at his seafood shop on 10th Street. Turtles helped buy the concrete blocks for that building.

But Florida officials could soon halt turtle hunting. On Thursday in Tampa, wildlife regulators talked to turtle fishermen, biologists, environmentalists and sushi caterers, trying to figure out how to manage the softshell species. Gov. Charlie Crist wrote a letter urging the state to shut down commercial fishing for softshells. The state's first freshwater turtle plan is due next year.

"They want to stop people from eating turtles," says Thomas' dad, John, who sold 100,000 pounds of softshells last year. "Just because one guy sees some turtles in a truck and gets upset."

• • •

Here's the story about the guy and the truck.

Last February, a bait shop owner spotted a pickup filled with sacks of live turtles at Newnan's Lake near Gainesville. He called the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which sent officers to investigate.

But the officers couldn't arrest anyone. Florida had no limit on the number of freshwater softshells you could catch or keep or sell.

Wildlife commissioners estimated that exporters were flying up to 3,000 pounds of live turtles out of Tampa's airport every week, with equal amounts being shipped from Orlando and Miami. Softshell turtles, which had only a small local market, had become highly desired in China.

"Across the state, about 150 people are catching them commercially," says Bill Turner, of Florida's fish and wildlife commission. "And they're catching the big ones, 30 pounds or more, big as dinner plates."

Fishermen make $1.25 per pound for live turtles, same as they always have, Turner says. "But over the last two years, the Oriental markets have just been buying so many more of them."

How many more? That's hard to say. Since the state had never regulated softshells, there were no records about harvest rates or pounds sold.

When environmentalists heard about the turtle haul, petitions started pouring into the state. Fish and wildlife commission Chairman Rodney Barreto urged everyone not to overreact. "The freshwater turtle population is not plunging into extinction," he wrote. "In fact, 90 percent of turtles that wind up in the food market or pet trade are from turtle farms."

Still, state officials felt they had to do something. In May, they shut down turtle hunting for three months of mating season. Last month, they limited commercial fishermen to 20 turtles a day.

"I drove all the way up there to Jacksonville to tell 'em, I been catching turtles all my life, and there's just as many turtles now as there was back when I was a boy," says John Thomas, 75.

"I told 'em, there's no biological reason to stop us from catching turtles. Every ditch, creek and sinkhole in Florida is filled with turtles, and we can't fish in but a tenth of the water anyway. I told 'em, 20 turtles ain't going to make a man a living.

"But they don't listen to the people who've lived with turtles all their lives. They listen to those people who don't want to kill any animals. Heck, people get mad at you for eating cows. But you don't see them shutting down the farmers."

• • •

Behind Tim Thomas' house, two blue baby pools are filled with turtles so small they can sit on his thumb. He didn't set out to breed turtles.

But eggs happen.

"I'm not really sure what I'm doing," he says.

When softshell season reopened in August, the Thomas family made a good haul. All seven of John Thomas' children hunt turtles; so do many of his 42 grandkids and great-grandkids. All through September, the family piled up thousands of turtles, each weighing from 2 to 50 pounds.

Then the Asian economy collapsed. China stopped importing turtles. Thomas Fish Company was stuck with 20,000 pounds of live softshells.

So Tim dug up his yard.

"Kept digging 'til I hit groundwater," he says. "Just poured those turtles right in."

He built wire fences around the ponds, but the turtles crawled out. He reinforced the fences with aluminum sheeting and taught his cur Barney to herd escapees. He bought 50-pound bags of catfish food to feed the softshells, and found they were costing him $150 a week.

Last month, some of the larger turtles started laying eggs. He scooped the eggs into his shed and watched them hatch. He would much rather snare turtles in the wild than harvest them behind his home, but here he is, the hunter turned gatherer.

He's not sure, when the Asian market reopens, that the price will make it worth what he has spent on the turtles. But he's hoping those 1,000 softshells hiding in the muddy ponds behind his house will soon be flying to China where it's nice and warm.

In a bowl of turtle soup.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

One softshell turtle business in Florida is shell-shocked 11/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 24, 2008 8:43pm]

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