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Florida wildlife agency is expected to shoot down a commercialized turtle breeding proposal

A diamondback terrapin turtle on the ground
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
A diamondback terrapin is seen in this undated file photograph from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The agency was expected to vote Sept. 28, 2022, against a proposal that would legalize captive, commercial breeding of one of Florida’s flagship species.

Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is hearing from a group of turtle enthusiasts that wants new rules to allow people to capture and breed diamondback terrapins. They aren’t endangered but conservationists are worried about their numbers.

Conservationists are split on a new proposal that would legalize captive, commercial breeding of one of Florida’s flagship species. The state’s wildlife agency was expected to vote against the plan next week over concerns it would make diamondback turtles more attractive for poachers.

The U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers of Florida wants the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to approve captive breeding to lessen the novelty associated with the species’ current population levels and better prepare for impending habitat loss due to climate change, spokesman Daniel Parker said. The group represents pet stores and hobbyists.

Florida’s coastline houses five of diamondback terrapin’s seven subspecies. None are endangered, but all are designated as Species of Greatest Conservation Need, according to the state agency. Three of the species are exclusive to the state.

The proposal wasn’t expected to survive. A staff report from the wildlife commission, to be presented during a commission meeting Wednesday, concluded commercialization would provide uncertain benefits while increasing risk of harm to the species, specifically poaching, trafficking and laundering.

The commission’s experts concluded that captive breeding would lead to increased illegal collection and demand, spokeswoman Lisa Thompson said.

Parker, who under an educational license owns four diamondback terrapin – Marshmallow, Bug, Mama Crusher and Sweetie – disagreed.

When animals are tightly regulated, he said, prices just go up. Ornate diamondback terrapins, a species exclusive to the state, fetched more than $1,400 each in 2015, according to a price analysis provided to the state agency by Florida turtle breeders.

“Like an illegal drug dealer,” Parker wrote, “a poacher is motivated by the profits of selling a product with an artificially inflated value.”

“Unfortunately with FWC,” he said, “there’s an ideology against keeping animals in captivity. I believe that’s more of an animal rights agenda than a conservation agenda. Conservation should be about sustainability of populations.”

Thompson, the agency spokeswoman, said public feedback was mixed. The commission’s experts recommended that current rules remain unchanged.

Miami is the third busiest U.S. port for the export of turtles, according to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with an estimated half a million turtles shipped annually.

Captive breeding — last allowed in Florida in 2006 — would make the terrapins more accessible, Parker said, and deter poaching, just one threat to the species.

The wildlife commission approved rules to improve management of wild diamondback terrapins in December 2021 as populations declined due to habitat loss, animal trading and use for food and medicine overseas.

Terrapins aren’t not commonly sought out as pets, said Hallie Risley, who works at Gator City Reptiles in Gainesville, but private hobbyists have been advocates for reinstituting captive breeding since the original 2006 ban.

Transitioning any animal from their native environment into captivity is difficult, Risley said. If they are born into captivity, they can have fewer health and behavioral issues. It also allows more opportunities to understand species’ habits: the main mission on captive breeding, she said.

The proposed breeding program could also allow terrapins confiscated by law enforcement to be placed with breeders who are licensed by the wildlife agency. A license fee, Parker said, could offset administrative costs and fund conservation efforts similar to existing operations for venomous reptiles.

The wildlife agency was accepting public comments during its meeting Wednesday. Comments submitted in advance must be sent no later than 5 p.m. Friday.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at juliacoin@freshtakeflorida.com. You can donate to support our students here.