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FWC: No More Florida Wild Turtle Soup

June 18, 2009

By unanimous vote, the Florida Wildlife Commission passed a rule protecting freshwater turtles from commercial harvesting, which is expected to put a rapid end to a practice scientists say has threatened severe depletion of some of Florida’s two-dozen species. The move follows a temporary reduction, backed by Governor Crist, which had been in effect since late last year. Freshwater turtles are considered a cooking delicacy in Asia, making them worth as much as $1.50 a pound with up to 3,000 pounds shipped live weekly to Asian markets.

Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, says the vote was a critical conservation effort.

"Natural Florida is a great place for turtles and they’re an important part of the food chain. This is an area that commercial harvesters would target; and there is a real concern about the Asian market essentially being insatiable."

Ten years ago, fewer than 1,000 turtles were shipped out of Florida annually, according to Fuller, but now that number is more than 91,000.

"The market has already had a devastating impact on wild turtle populations in Southeast Asia and in China. Freshwater turtle species that were once common are now extremely rare or on the endangered species list."

The state is encouraging "aqua-farms" to raise turtles for both pets and food, and approximately 30 farms currently operate in Florida. While farm operators will be allowed to harvest some wild turtles for brood stock, the bulk of the population will be conserved, adds Fuller.

"I think it’s an excellent model for other states, and I think there will be broad implications of the commission’s decision in terms of wildlife conservation across the country."

Commercial fishermen say the state did not have enough information to justify the ban, while conservation proponents argued assessing the damage would take years, and could cause more depletion, as it has in Asia.

Florida's rules for protecting freshwater turtles are now known as the most-comprehensive in the nation. Other states have imposed limits, but most have stopped short of banning wild turtle harvesting altogether.

Gina Presson , Public News Service - FL