Ban Turtle Killing

Crist responded promptly and positively. He agrees. Thanks Gov! Now stop this outrage!

17 November 2008
To: Florida Governor Charlie Crist
Re: Florida Turtle Harvesting Regulations

Dear Governor Crist,

We are a group of 32 leading scientists with special expertise on Florida’s turtles writing to express
our concern that Florida’s freshwater turtles are being harvested at an unsustainable rate to supply East
Asian food and medicinal markets. New rules recently implemented by the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission (FWC) do not resolve this issue. Turtle reproductive ecology makes even
moderate levels of turtle harvest unsustainable. Thus, our awareness of the increasing global market
threats that have caused turtles to become one of the world’s most endangered animal groups, prompts
us to strongly recommend a permanent end to the commercial harvest of turtles in Florida. In a joint
letter to the FWC dated March 25, 2008, we recommended a new rule to protect wild freshwater turtles
in Florida, specifying that no one person should take from the wild more than one turtle per day, and
two per group of persons, and that these must be of species not currently protected by other rules, unless
authorized by a special use permit (e.g., scientific research or to facilitate conservation and management).
We implore you to ask the FWC to enact this rule.

During the September 17, 2008 FWC meeting, the Commissioners voted to allow commercial fishermen
to harvest 20 softshell turtles per person per day, a change based on input from the resource users, and
not science. Although there was no limit previously, this rate of capture is still too high and the data we
have suggest this is business as usual. Two fishermen working 5 days a week could take 200 animals or
¾ of a ton of turtles per week. There is also no limit to the number of commercial fishing licenses issued
by FWC. We do not believe that this is adequate protection for Florida’s wild turtle populations.
The FWC has recently argued that most turtles exported from Florida are farm-raised. The numbers are
misleading. Although 90% of the individual turtles exported from Florida may be from farms, these
are nearly all tiny hatchlings and they don’t count much in the mass of adult turtles exported for use
as food. An FWC Law Enforcement Intelligence Bulletin from March 2008 reports 1600–3000 lbs of
live turtle flown out of Tampa weekly. It seems unlikely that these are all farmed hatchlings (that only
weigh about 1/3 ounce each). FWC staff have told us that farmers rarely raise their hatchlings up to a
size suitable for the meat trade. Our best guess is that these are mostly adult Florida softshell turtles,
but we don’t know for sure because FWC does not collect data on the species, sizes, or numbers of
turtles that are being sent out of state. The same FWC bulletin suggests that similar amounts of turtle
are flown out of Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami on a weekly basis. Available data suggest that
softshell turtles shipped live from Florida weigh about 6–8 lbs each. If 8000 lbs of turtle are flown out
of Florida each week, this could represent at least 1000 adult turtles. However, it could be much more.
A story from Bay News 9 dated October 11, 2008 says that the Thomas Fish Company in Polk County
has increased its purchases of wild caught turtles from 1000 lbs a year to 10,000 lbs a week! The Miami
Herald recently reported that a Lauderhill fish dealer buys 3000 lbs of live turtles per week. How many
fish houses in Florida are doing a similar business? We don’t know. FWC does not know.

A report by FWC staff dated March 10, 2008 states: “We do not know the impacts of current harvest
rates on softshell turtles.” So we don’t know the impact of the trade and we don’t know the true volume
of the trade (although it certainly involves tens of thousands of adult animals). What we do know is that
previous FWC work indicates that softshell turtle stocks can be negatively impacted by overfishing.
An FWC document published 15 years ago cites the observations of C. Vesser of “The Softshell Turtle
Company,” two decades prior to the increased demand for East Asian markets. He told FWC staff that the numbers of
Florida softshells in Lake Okeechobee from 1976 to 1982 had become too low to support the fishery. What we also
know is that there is a thoroughly documented, unsustainable demand for turtle meat and shells in many East Asian
countries and Asian communities in the U.S. that has led to new patterns of freshwater turtle consumption and trade
in recent years. This has led to massive harvests of turtles worldwide that threatens many species with extinction, and
turtles are now among the most threatened groups of animals in the world. In most parts of Asia, harvest has led to a
crisis of increased extinction risk for most turtle species. There are now few healthy populations remaining in the wild
in Asia, so East Asian importers are instead buying U.S. turtles. The FWC bulletin cited above says that “Chinese turtle
brokers regularly advance tens of thousands of dollars to licensed Florida wholesale dealers to purchase freshwater
turtles, mullet row and several species of saltwater fish.”

FWC does not allow such commercialization of other game species such as largemouth bass, gray squirrels, wild turkey,
or whitetail deer, all of which are reproductively capable of replenishing their populations much more rapidly than turtles.
Given the increasing evidence of a large commercial harvest for overseas trade and our knowledge of these long-lived
and relatively slow growing reptiles, we recommend that the State of Florida end the commercial harvest of wild-caught
freshwater turtles, and provide better protection for this important component of Florida’s natural heritage.