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Florida wildlife commissioners vote to deny captive breeding of diamondback terrapins

A small brown turtle emerging from a shell with half of its body still in it, surrounded by five other hatching eggs, three of which are blurred in the background. They're on small white pebbles.
Ed Komara Jr.
Florida is home to five subspecies of diamondback terrapins - three of which are endemic to the state.

FWC staff brought in law enforcement and an expert on global turtle trafficking to make the case against captive breeding of diamondback terrapins, while the majority of public commenters were for it.

Florida wildlife officials voted Wednesday to deny a proposal for captive breeding of diamondback terrapins, which are threatened by poaching for the domestic and overseas pet trade.

Advocates argued that commercial breeding would alleviate the pressure put on those illegally captured in the wild.

In addition to trafficking, their populations are also on the decline as more than 50% of their original habitat has been lost. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission expects that to continue to grow under climate change and increasing sea levels. Plus, they have been drowning in blue crab traps, although new rules for preventing that will go into effect March 2023.

Captive breeding of the species has been prohibited since 2006, and a ban on possessing them went into effect this year, with the exception of permits for pets before March or for scientific research to strengthen their conservation.

FWC staff successfully recommended Wednesday for regulations to remain the same.

Melissa Tucker, with the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, told commissioners during her presentation that captive breeding would actually cause more harm than good to diamondback terrapins.

“We approached our review of captive breeding of terrapins with two goals in mind: we wanted to better understand the potential benefits, harm and risks that are associated with commercialization, and we wanted to ensure that whatever we did, we weren't going to have any future harm to our native terrapin population,” Tucker said.

"There is substantial concern that lessening protections and opening a market would lead to increased poaching and laundering similar to what we have observed and other turtle species, and that this would lead to the decline of our native populations.”

In favor of captive breeding

But the majority of members of the public who spoke during the comment period were for captive breeding. That included Marcus Cantos, who’s been breeding and keeping turtles for over 50 years. He’s also served 22 years on an animal industry council for the Florida Department of Agriculture.

“Consider this: Tens of thousands of diamondback terrapins are captive-bred on a single farm in Maryland every year. And Florida Department of Agriculture wants to do the paperwork, the legwork, and the program enforcement for you,” Cantos said. “And in 30 years of terrapin regulation, only one single citation has ever been written. And one year ago, only anecdotal data on population levels existed — today, exactly the same. There is no real data.”

Tucker brought in the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Brian Horne from Southern California to talk about the global turtle trade, trafficking and markets.

He gave a presentation on the global decline of turtles, in general, due to human consumption, traditional medicine, habitat loss, disease, and the live animal trade.

Turtle with a yellow and black diamond-shaped shell with small black spots on light gray, nearly white skin .
Daniel Parker
Ornate diamondback terrapin in Hernando County.

“There is no evidence that commercial breeding has any beneficial conservation impacts," Horne said. "It has not been generous to us to reduce hunting pressures for illegal trade on a regional and global scales. We've seen that over and over again, multiple countries in various parts of the world.”

One member of the public, Tyler Brooks, addressed Horne during his allotted three minutes: “As far as Dr. Horne’s presentation, I simply do not understand why supply and demand does not work here. It's a proven economic theory.”

Some of the images Horne exhibited were of turtles covered in duct tape and others dead due to mishandling during shipping, which led multiple members of the public to say that this was not representative of how Florida breeders operate.

Commissioner Sonya Rood agreed with a commenter who said the presentation was “negative” in terms of shipping examples.

“I was just seeing if there's anything more positive in the proper transportation,” she said, addressing Tucker.

Tucker then said: “I think that what you're asking is whether or not there are aspects of turtle farming in Florida that are more positive than what you were seeing in the global trade. Certainly … we have oversight of existing turtle farms that is good, and that does provide for the safe and humane handling of turtles that are being shipped out of state.”

Scratching the surface of illegal activity

Maj. Grant Burton, with the FWC’s Division of Law Enforcement, also spoke as part of Tucker’s recommendation.

“Preventing illegal wildlife trafficking, which ranks fourth behind drugs, firearms and human trafficking, is a serious and complicated endeavor … Our suspicion is that law enforcement has only scratched the surface of the illegal activity that is currently occurring to supply the global demand for these species,” Burton said.

He further explained that it would be extremely difficult to determine whether the turtles, exported interstate or internationally, were captive bred.

One member of the public suggested that it would actually be easy to distinguish whether a turtle is from the wild or captivity through the use of import licenses and inexpensive Passive Integrated Transponders, or PIT tags.

Another point that Tucker made was to differentiate between captive breeding for wild release and for commercial trade.

“Breeding for the commercial trade has different goals. It's tailored to the trends and the demands of consumer interest rather than the traits that was that would facilitate survival in the wild,” Tucker said, adding that captive breeding for wild release requires strong oversight and collaboration, typically done when species' numbers are at very low levels. But she said diamondback terrapins haven't reached that low level yet.

That led a commenter to ask: “Why are we waiting until they hit that point to step in and help these populations? Why are we waiting until the last moment? I'm asking you to consider a captive breeding program. Captive breeders will be able to curve the market, and they'll be able to diminish the value of these turtles, which leads to no wild caught incentives, which protects the wild populations.”

Commissioner Robert Spottswood moved to accept Tucker’s recommendation to not allow for captive breeding of diamondback terrapins.

“On balance, and I really, you know, thoughtfully consider all the comments that I've heard and I appreciate both sides of the issue," Spottswood said. "But on balance, I come down in favor of supporting the staff recommendation, and I move to do so.”

The move was seconded by Rood, and without any audible opposition from commissioners, they voted in favor of the motion.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.