A rising demand in China for turtles for food and medicine has led to the round-up of thousands of turtles from Florida's lakes, ponds and canals.
Exporters are shipping up to 3,000 pounds of softshell turtles a week out of Tampa International Airport, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. A Fort Lauderdale seafood company is buying about 5,000 pounds of softshell turtles a week. They're worth about $2 a pound to the harvesters.
"Asian countries are causing the extinction, the near extinction or the endangerment of every species of turtle they have over there, so now they're turning to the United States to supply their insatiable demand for turtle," said Matt Aresco, a turtle biologist from the Panhandle.
The trend — which biologists worry threatens species survival — has surfaced at places like Newnan's Lake near Gainesville. Last summer, as Gary Simpson jotted down the license plate number of a suspicious-looking pickup, he wondered about the bulging sacks in the truck bed. Simpson, who manages a tackle shop, worried poachers had filled the sacks with fish.
After he used his pocket knife to slash open a sack, "Turtles started piling out," he said. There were at least a dozen in each of the 20 sacks, he said. "It was pretty obscene, it really was."
By the time the truck's owners had returned to the dock, he said, "those turtles were crawling all over the parking lot." Wildlife officers summoned by Simpson were waiting — but they had to let the turtle-catchers go because they had broken no law.
Other states — Alabama and Texas, among others — have recently restricted or banned the harvest of turtles. As those states have cut off access, the harvesters have focused more and more on Florida's turtles, Aresco said.
The harvesters target the larger turtles, the ones old enough to reproduce, Aresco said. Wipe out those and soon all the turtles will be gone.
Two environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and the St. Johns Riverkeeper, petitioned the wildlife commission to ban freshwater turtle harvesting. Turtle biologists asked the state to curtail it to just one turtle per person per day. The commission's own experts recommended a limit of five per person per day.
But several turtle harvesters showed up at a meeting last month to urge commissioners to hold off.
"There's nothing wrong with it," said William Shockley, an electrical contractor who often fishes for turtles around Lake Okeechobee. "It's a good, honest living. This is our survival."
For Shockley, a good day is when he can haul in 30 or 40 softshell turtles, about 500 pounds total. He sells them to one of 10 dealers around the lake. Some go to local restaurants, he said, but others go overseas. Shockley estimated there are between 100 to 500 harvesters statewide.
After hearing their appeal, the commissioners voted to impose a limit of 20 turtles a day per person for licensed harvesters -- to the biologists' consternation.
"That's 140 softshells a week per person," Aresco said. "That's not much different from what's going on now. That's no way to manage a species. It's not based on any science at all."
Commission biologist Bill Turner pointed out that the new 20-per-day limit is just an interim rule. Over the next year the staff will meet with both sides to forge a compromise.
Aresco contended that's not good enough: "We can't allow this to continue for a year."
Seminole City Council member Dan Hester would agree. When residents who live around Blossom Lake Park complained that someone was swiping turtles from the lake, Hester asked the city staff what he could do to stop it.
The answer: Not much. State and federal officials make the wildlife laws, not cities. Rather than give up, Hester said, the city posted signs at parks warning that no one could remove any wildlife.
"It's not enforceable," he conceded, but maybe it will scare off some folks.
Mark Ely, who did the research for Hester, said he couldn't figure out why the turtle harvesters would target Blossom Lake: "Why would you want to eat something that lives in a retention pond that takes stormwater runoff?"
Times staff writer Anne Lindberg and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.