ROTONDA — Amid reports that turtle harvesters are back trying to work their canals, concerned residents are monitoring the waterways and pinning their hopes on stricter regulations that have been proposed by the Florida Wildlife Commission.
Rotonda residents have been signing petitions and writing to the commission for months in support of tighter regulations. When some residents noticed commercial fishermen in the canals recently, they have also begun calling law enforcement agencies to make certain they are abiding by the current regulations.
The reason: “If you take these turtles away,” said Berlinda Olsen, “how can we expect them to come back?”
That question has been echoed by countless Floridians as well as more than three dozen scientists who support a possible new ban on soft-shell turtle harvesting. If approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the ban will set much stricter limits on the hunting of freshwater turtles.
In November 2008, Rotonda residents were appalled to find trot lines with nearly 500 hooks on them floating in the community’s canals. The lines were lying in wait to trap soft-shell turtles that swim through the nearly 30 miles of waterways in Rotonda.
Olsen and her husband Don saw the boats and trot lines from their back yard.
“We were just furious,” she said. “I had no idea there was even such a thing.”
The turtles that could usually be seen poking their heads out of the canal weren’t around for weeks after the fishermen’s stay, Olsen added.
The couple was even more shocked to learn that what the fishermen were doing was completely legal.
Though other states have made the practice illegal, licenses are available in Florida that allow up to 20 soft-shelled turtles to be harvested per day.
Olsen is now on a mission to stop the harvesting of these turtles. Since November, she has collected more than 200 signatures for a community petition.
“They’re necessary to the health of our waterways,” she said, “and nobody’s monitoring this harvesting.”
The issue has been a long-standing debate between the fishermen who harvest the turtles for a living and conservationists who fear the extinction of the docile Florida creatures.
Perhaps the most powerful advocate of the ban is Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
In November, Crist personally wrote to the commission asking for “a move toward a complete ban on the harvesting of our wild turtles.”
A flourishing Asian market is to blame for the recent demand for the turtles, Olsen and other concerned citizens said. In parts of Korea, China and Japan, turtle meat is considered a delicacy and is used in many dishes.
However, Asia’s turtle population has been harvested nearly to extinction and the market is now looking to the United States for its supplies.
“The species is being depleted,” said Bob Winter, a member of the Aquatic Canal System Committee in Rotonda, “people are getting upset.”
After a significant harvest in an area it can take years for population numbers to rebound, due to the slow growth and maturation process of many soft-shell turtles.
“Few places in North America have the rich diversity of turtles that we have here in Florida,” said Tim Breault, director of Habitat and Species Conservation at the FWC. “This proposed rule ensures their long-term survival.”
A decision on the possible ban of turtle harvesting will be made April 15 in Tallahassee by the commission.
If approved, the proposition will be sent to a final hearing at the June commission meeting.
Those who want to write to the Florida Wildlife Commission about new rules for harvesting turtles should send their letters to:
Rodney Barreto, Chairman
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
620 S. Meridian St.
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1600
To send an e-mail to him, address it to:
By NICK MILANO