The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously to ban the commercial harvest of freshwater turtles throughout the state on Wednesday, April 15.
The move comes after several of the world’s leading turtle scientists called on Florida's Governor Charlie Crist to end the commercial hunting of turtles which supplies eastern Asia.
The experts, brought together by the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, alerted the Governor that the state's turtles were at high risk of being wiped out by the expanding global trade in turtles which had recently begun to target Florida's fairly robust turtle poulations.
That trade has been driven by the almost insatiable demand for turtle meat and medicinal products in Chinese markets and led to the previously destructive Asian turtle trade, which has driven many populations of wild turtles in Asia into near extinction.
Governor Crist demonstrated true conservation leadership by coming out in public support of banning the turtle trade and instructed his Wildlife Commission to study the matter carefully and take appropriate action.
“This is a great victory for turtle conservation,” says Anders Rhodin, Chair of IUCN’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. “The regulations will be the strictest in the US and mean the US is finally facing up to the growing threat of this global consumptive turtle trade. The IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group was central in helping to achieve this victory.”
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.
"If we allowed it, the Chinese - more than one billion Chinese - could and probably would eat every single turtle in existence in Florida in one year," says biologist Dale Jackson.
In China, one species of softshell turtle is down to the last two individuals, said Peter Meylan of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. Scientists said Florida shouldn't wait for turtles there to disappear before taking action.
The Florida commercial turtle harvest ban will be enacted later this year. 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 endangered 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.
In a letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the turtle experts said: “The proposed new regulations will provide the best protection for freshwater turtles in any state in the U.S. and establish Florida as a leader on this issue in North America.
“Other states are watching Florida,” it continued. “As we noted in our earlier letter, Florida is one of the two centers of highest turtle diversity in the world, and it is important that we demonstrate our stewardship of this important natural heritage.”
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