The state's wildlife agency voted unanimously Wednesday to ban the harvest of freshwater turtles throughout Florida, setting the stage for imposing the strongest such ban in the nation.
The harvesting ban will not take effect until after the agency votes on the final version of the new rule in June.
The decision comes after Gov. Charlie Crist, biologists and herpetology fans urged the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to end the harvest over fears that the state's turtles were being wiped out.
About 50 people are involved in catching freshwater turtles around the state, according to the wildlife agency. The fishermen contended there are so many turtles, their reptile roundups are having no effect whatsoever.
According to the wildlife commission's staff, fish markets estimate that they buy a maximum of 560,000 pounds of turtles from fishermen, mostly softshell turtles, a year. These fishermen are paid between 75 cents to $1.40 per pound for the turtles.
But it's a lucrative business for the exporters, who, according to the wildlife agency staff, could rake in a net profit ranging from $30,000 to $60,000 by shipping their cargo overseas.
"The foreign market for freshwater turtles appears to be insatiable," a wildlife commission staff report said. "Recent decline of China's softshell turtle populations has been attributed to overharvesting for the burgeoning markets for turtles for food and traditional medicine.
"This unpredictable and potentially eruptive foreign market could place much greater harvest pressure on Florida's turtles in relatively short time frames."
Turtle biologists such as Matt Aresco first raised warnings about what was happening.
"All the scientists who study Florida's turtles are unanimous: we believe that the mass commercial hunting of wild turtles must end," Aresco said in response to Wednesday's wildlife commission decision.
Their complaints led to a series of public hearings that drew scores of people. They also prompted a letter from Crist urging the agency to "move toward a complete ban on the harvesting of our wild turtles," or "we could be in grave danger of irreparable damage to our turtle population."
About 100 people showed up at a public hearing in Tampa last fall to debate the proposed ban, including fishermen like William Shockley, who contended there was no evidence of any decline in the turtle population.
"Have you got any data on the Florida softshell turtle?" Shockley, a third-generation Okeechobee fisherman, asked the crowd. "Anything? Anything to indicate there's even a slight decrease in the Florida softshell turtle?"
And fisherman Levi Miller warned the crowd that banning turtle harvesting would hurt the economy.
"You're fixing to help people lose their house," he said.
About 25 people spoke at the wildlife commission meeting in Tallahassee, some of them biologists and animal welfare activists who supported the ban, some of them turtle harvesters and turtle farmers who opposed it, according to agency spokeswoman Patricia Behnke.
The draft rule would ban the commercial take or sale of wild freshwater turtles, and would also prohibit taking turtles from the wild that are listed on Florida's imperiled species list. In addition, the collection of eggs would be prohibited.
Individuals would be allowed to take one freshwater turtle per day per person from the wild for noncommercial use. The transport of more than one turtle per day would be prohibited.
Some turtle farms depend on the collection of wild freshwater turtles. Under the proposed draft rule, turtle farms, under a tightly controlled process, would be allowed to collect turtles for breeding purposes for a two-year period.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8530.