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FL Press: Is hunting soft-shells bad?

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Thu Feb 28 18:30:22 2008  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  

GAINESVILLE SUN (Florida) 22 February 08 Is hunting soft-shell turtles bad? (Nathan Crabbe)
Asian demand for turtle meat is feeding an increase in the capture of the reptiles in Florida, threatening turtle populations in Newnan's Lake and other bodies of water, experts say.
Continue to 2nd paragraph An incident at the lake is leading state wildlife officials to look into the problem. Gary Simpson, who works at the Tackle Box fishing store next to the lake, reported in August finding a truck filled with bags containing hundreds of turtles.
He called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and expected the anglers who caught the turtles to face charges, only to find that the mass hunting of soft-shell turtles was legal.
"If what they were doing was legal, then we need to change the law," he said.
Florida law bans hunting of the gopher tortoise and limits the number of other hard-shell turtle species that can be taken. But for the soft-shell turtle, the law allows unlimited hunting except during its mating season.
Turtle experts say consumption of the reptiles has long been a tradition in Florida and other Southern states, where turtle soup was once a low-income staple. But others say the demand for turtle meat in China has accelerated the killing, leading a growing number of states to ban commercial harvesting.
"What everybody's afraid of is there are people out there that are basically going to mine resources," said Peter Meylan, a biology professor at Eckerd College. "They're going to hit them hard before people have a chance to say this is a bad idea."
Meylan referred to soft-shell turtles as "the rats of the turtle world," saying they can be found in abundance in man-made water bodies such as canals and retention ponds.
But he said the slow nature of turtle reproduction and anecdotal reports from Lake Okeechobee suggest even soft-shell turtles can have their populations decimated. Another concern is that hunting will affect less abundant hard-shelled species.
Florida is home to 26 turtle species. The hunting of the gopher tortoise, a land-based species, is banned outright. While freshwater species such as the Suwannee cooter are listed as protected, the state allows them to be caught in small numbers.
Previous high-profile incidents of turtle killings have involved violations of those rules. In 2004, a mass grave of more than 200 butchered gopher tortoises was discovered in Leesburg. Later that year, about 100 butchered Suwannee cooters were found near Cedar Key.
The harvesting of soft-shell turtles, which have a rubbery shell that lets them swim quickly and bury themselves, is largely unregulated. State law bans harvesting the turtles from May 1 to July 31, but it allows unlimited harvesting without a permit the rest of the year.
Simpson said he found hundreds of turtles that he believes were soft-shelled. He said in the months since the initial report, he's seen the same truck and anglers on two more occasions, saying they seemed like professionals in their ability to get large numbers of turtles.
"However they're doing it, they're very well-practiced," he said.
Following a series of e-mails on the incident from turtle experts and inquiries from The Sun, a Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman said officials will look into whether harvesting is a problem.
Turtle experts say the state needs to increase oversight of harvesting and get a better handle on the number of turtles being taken.
Experts say long lines with multiple hooks, called trot lines, are often used to catch large numbers of soft-shell turtles. Florida law requires a recreational fishing permit for the use of lines with 25 or fewer hooks and a commercial permit for a greater number.
But permits do not require anglers to report whether they're catching turtles and the number of turtles being caught.
"They could take most of a population out of a lake," Meylan said.
Newnan's Lake is considered a center of turtle diversity in Florida, said Gary Appleson of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, a sea-turtle advocacy group based in Gainesville.
"You can just catch turtles all day long," he said. "The area is just so rich."
Demand for turtle meat had largely been limited to low-income rural areas and ethnic food markets in U.S. cities, said Peter C.H. Pritchard of the Chelonian Research Institute in Oviedo.
In Gainesville, at least one Asian market reported selling turtles when demand for turtle soup increases around the Chinese New Year. The owner of Oriental 88, Wei Cao, reported getting the turtles from a New York distributor.
The Yearling restaurant in Cross Creek includes turtle soup among its menu specials. Owner Robert Blauer said the "fine-tasting" meat is a popular item, but it is difficult for him to obtain on a regular basis.
"You have to rely on local guys with a commercial license to go out and get it," he said.
Pritchard said the international trade in turtles poses a more significant problem. Turtles take a long time to grow to maturity, he said, so large-scale commercial harvesting can decimate populations.
"They don't replace quickly," he said. "Some people think there's no level of sustainable take."
Three-quarters of Asia's 90 species of tortoise and freshwater turtle are now considered threatened, according to Virginia-based Conservation International. Scientists from the organization and other conservation groups studied 200 out of about 300 known species, finding at least 40 percent are at immediate risk of extinction.
In the U.S., several states have recently joined a group of a dozen that ban commercial harvesting. Last year, Texas banned commercial collection of all wild turtles from public places. Maryland banned the trapping of diamondback terrapins, the state mascot.
Paul Moler, a retired Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist, said he helped conduct this state's last large study of soft-shell turtles a dozen years ago. The study found the species was not threatened.
Moler said China banned the import of turtles in the mid-1990s, reducing demand. The ban has since been lifted and the growing affluence of Chinese consumers has now boosted demand to new heights, he said.
"There seems to be no question that there's been a significant increase in the demand of Asia," he said.
Meylan said the commission needs to determine how many turtles can be taken without threatening populations.
"We really don't know how many is too many," he said.
Is hunting soft-shell turtles bad?


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  • You Are HereFL Press: Is hunting soft-shells bad? - W von Papinešu, Thu Feb 28 18:30:22 2008

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