CRYSTAL RIVER — In what one commissioner called "a legacy vote," Florida on Wednesday approved the toughest measures in the United States to protect freshwater turtles.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously to outlaw the commercial taking of the state's freshwater turtles and eggs.
"This decision may be one of Florida's greatest conservation stories," Commissioner Brian Yablonski said. "This is a legacy vote."
The reptiles are popular in China, where they are considered a delicacy and are used in medicine. However, wildlife officials fear that continued capture of the wild creatures from lakes, ponds and other waterways would endanger some turtle species.
Bowing to public outcry over the practice, Gov. Charlie Crist urged the agency last year to move toward a complete ban on the harvesting of wild turtles.
The FWC heard from 24 people Wednesday, including environmental groups and wildlife experts who supported the ban.
"We need to protect the resource before it's too late. Good regulations will help that," said Peter Meylan of Eckerd College.
Douglas Traywick, 51, traveled from Gotha in Orange County to oppose the new rules. A lifelong fisherman, he said he has the required state licenses to fish for and transport turtles, but he worries about his industry's future. "Imperiled species? We're one of them," he told the panel.
"I can't go on unemployment," he said, "I'm the lowest man on the totem pole."
Sharon Groene, whose family owns a business near Eagle Lake in Polk County that deals in everything from farm-raised tilapia to alligator meat, said the new rule unfairly targets people of limited means.
"Nobody gets rich catching turtles," she said. "These are people who need that money so they can feed their kids."
Commissioner Dwight Stephenson addressed the concerns of the fishermen. "I want to say that your voice has been heard, but we're charged with protecting these species and this rule is necessary at this time."
The new rules allow turtle farms to collect turtles to reproduce in captivity and thus become self-sustaining without taking turtles from the wild.
Ron Bergeron of the FWC urged opponents to look at the big picture. "When you're over-fishing, you're not only hurting the species, you're hurting the food chain as well," he said. "Florida needs to be a leader on this."
The new rules ban the taking of turtles that are on the imperiled species list, including alligator snapping turtles, Barbour's map turtles and Suwannee cooters. Also, the taking of cooters, Escambia map turtles and snapping turtles is prohibited.
The new rules do allow for limited taking of softshell turtles, one per day for personal use, if taken by hand, baited hook or minnow seine. Fishing for softshells is prohibited during the breeding season, from May 1 to July 31. For more details, see www.MyFWC.com.
According to the FWC, about 50 people are involved in largely unregulated business of catching freshwater turtles around the state. Fishermen are paid between 75 cents and $1.40 per pound for the turtles, which are shipped live overseas, according to an FWC staff report. Exporters can net $30,000 to $60,000 for a single shipment.