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Florida wildlife commissioners will discuss the captive breeding of diamondback terrapins

Profile of a turtle surrounded by sand and green plants. It has a brown and yellow shell. Its beige skin is spotted. And its nose is pointed up along with the center of its shell.
George L. Heinrich
/
Courtesy
Turtle biologists sent a letter this month to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision, asking that the captive breeding of diamondback terrapins remain illegal in the state.

The captive breeding of diamondback terrapins has not been allowed in Florida since 2006, but wildlife officials on Wednesday will discuss whether to bring it back during their next meeting.

Turtle biologists sent a letter this month to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, asking that the captive breeding of diamondback terrapins remain illegal in the state. This topic is on the agenda for Wednesday's FWC meeting.

Populations are in decline due to habitat loss and accidental deaths in blue crab traps, but one of their biggest threats is the global pet market.

Demand for diamondback terrapins is high in the U.S. and abroad, leading to the trafficking of five subspecies living in Florida's wild — three of those subspecies are found only in the Sunshine State. The highest sale of a single terrapin overseas has so far been documented at $4,000, with the average price at $2,600 per turtle in Hong Kong.

Advocates with the nonprofit United States Association of Reptile Keepers Florida sent a proposal to the FWC for the legal captive breeding of terrapins, arguing that supplying the trade with captive-bred terrapins would discourage illegal collection of wild turtles.

Click here to read U.S. ARK's perspective.

In response, 15 scientists sent their own letter to commissioners saying this plan is unlikely to reduce the market demand that drives illegal terrapin trafficking and therefore would not be a viable conservation solution.

“Terrapins are already commercially bred in large numbers in other states, and there is no evidence to suggest that additional operations in Florida would fulfill market demand,” the letter said.

Elise Bennett, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said she supports the scientists.

"When you have captive bred terrapins, and they're being sold on the market, that's always going to create an incentive for people with bad intentions to go out into the wild and take them from the wild," Bennett said. "It's just cheaper to do that. It takes many years and a lot of resources to raise a terrapin from an egg all the way to an adult."

Bennett added that maintaining the current rules is the best way to combat poaching and trafficking.

"It's much easier for law enforcement to catch and stop these poachers, if it's very clear that you simply can't be breeding them or possessing them without very special permits," Bennett said.

New conservation rules, which took effect March, state that taking diamondback terrapins from the wild is prohibited with the exception of collection for scientific research with a permit. Anyone with the turtles as pets before that date could legally keep the animals but had to obtain a no-cost permit.

Additionally, commissioners decided that by March of 2023, all recreational blue crab traps will be required to have rigid funnel openings no larger than 2 x 6 inches at the narrowest point, or 2 x 6-inch bycatch reduction devices installed. These practices can reduce incidental terrapin mortality by keeping terrapins from entering crab traps and are intended to have little impact on blue crab catch, according to the FWC’s website.

The 15 scientists and Bennett also support the FWC staff’s recommendation to maintain current regulations that prohibit captive breeding of diamondback terrapins.

The staff report said they solicited input through a questionnaire and two public webinars targeting stakeholders. Input “was mixed with potential breeders favoring creating a commercial market and non-breeder participants voicing concern over enforcement and oversight of that market.”

“Given the species’ vulnerable life history traits in Florida, coupled with the potential risk of increased harm to native populations through impacts of collection pressure, demand, and contributing to illicit turtle trade, staff recommends the current rules remain unchanged,” according to the memo from Melissa Tucker, director of habitat and species conservation, and Col. Roger Young, law enforcement, to the commission.

Public comments will be accepted in-person during the next FWC meeting, which is open to the public.

  • What: FWC meeting on the captive breeding of diamondback terrapins
  • When: Nov 30, 2022 at 8:30 am
  • Where: Bluegreen’s Bayside Resort and Spa, 4144 Jan Cooley Dr., Panama City, 32408
Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.