TAMPA — Nearly 100 people turned out Thursday to debate whether to ban the capture of Florida softshell turtles for export to China. But the loudest voice belonged to someone who wasn't there: Gov. Charlie Crist.
Crist sent a letter to the head of the state wildlife commission urging the agency to "move toward a complete ban on the harvesting of our wild turtles."
"According to many of the turtle biologists, if the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is not vigilant and does not act swiftly, we could be in grave danger of irreparable damage to our turtle population," Crist said.
The governor's opinion was unknown to the nearly 100 attendees at the wildlife commission meeting, which was called in light of the weekly exporting of thousands of wild softshells to China, where people consume the animals for food and medicine. Biologists fear the softshells are being overfished, while fisherman say they are barely making an impact on the species.
By the end of Thursday's meeting, there was one sure conclusion:
No one can prove either side since the state has no scientific data on the softshell population.
With the country in recession and state legislators threatening budget cuts, a study is unlikely, state officials acknowledged, especially considering the species isn't threatened.
All the wildlife commission could do was collect perspectives at the hearing from the likes of turtle fishermen, a turtle exporter, biologists and taxpayers such as Marcus Milnes, a Clearwater chiropractor, who came because he wants to ban turtle hunting.
The wildlife commission estimates exporters are shipping up to 3,000 pounds of softshell turtles a week out of Tampa International Airport. For years, the state had no limits on taking softshell turtles, which biologists say can grow as large as 100 pounds.
In September, as wildlife officers reported seeing fishermen with truck beds full of turtles, officials imposed limit of five softshells per person per day except for licensed commercial fishermen, who can trap 20.
Now Crist wants a ban.
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Of the wildlife commission's seven board members, Crist appointed or reappointed six.
"The people of Florida want the very best for our natural resources, and I am sure that you will meet their expectations as you deliberate this issue over the next several months," Crist told commission chairman Rodney Barreto, whom he reappointed.
Fishermen said Thursday they're already feeling effects of restrictions. Sean Lee, who hunts turtles full time, made as much as $3,000 a week before expenses until the current limits cut his income by two-thirds. He said he could drive 10 minutes from downtown and find a turtle, which he said are thriving.
"We're going into a depression. You know what you're fixing to do?" fisherman Levi Miller, 50, told opponents. "You're fixing to help people lose their house."
Turtle fishermen earn $1 to $1.50 per pound. They use hooks baited with chicken, pork fat and bacon to capture the turtles for exporters who airfreight the animals live. "Have you got any data on the Florida softshell turtle?" William Shockley, a third-generation Okeechobee fisherman, asked the crowd. "Anything? Anything to indicate there's even a slight decrease in the Florida softshell turtle?"
Eckerd College biologist Peter Meylan, who studies the softshell turtle, used the same argument to support a ban.
Erring on the safe side for an important native species makes more sense than protecting the livelihood of no more than 300 fisherman who hunt turtles.
"The simple solution, the cost-effective solution, the easily enforceable solution is, let's bring this thing to a close," he said.
Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.