The killing and smuggling of turtles for their meat and as an ingredient in Asian medicines is taking an astonishing toll on the creatures worldwide. A few years ago, 25 tons of live turtles were exported from Sumatra to China every single week. That's just from one island to one country, and it gives you some idea of the scale of the problem.
Now that many Asian turtle populations have been wiped out or pushed to the brink of extinction, foreign countries are turning to the U.S. to meet their insatiable demand for turtle meat. And Florida, one of the few turtle-rich states that has not yet substantially restricted or banned the commercial collection of wild turtles, has become their favorite hunting ground. As Kim Christensen reported in the Los Angeles Times this weekend, "conservationists fear that the U.S. turtle population could be eaten into extinction."
Commercial market hunters now scour Florida's freshwater lakes and rivers, and haul off truckloads of softshell turtles at an alarming rate for export to Asia. They use long fishing lines with hundreds of baited hooks, snagging not only turtles but also other aquatic life. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that 3,000 pounds of live turtles are flown out of Tampa International Airport every week, with thousands more from other major airports in the state.
Fortunately, the turtles have a friend in Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is calling for an all-out ban on the turtle trade. He recently wrote in a letter to the state's wildlife policymakers: "According to many of the turtle biologists, if the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is not vigilant and does not act swiftly we could be in grave danger of irreparable damage to our turtle population. Based on the information, I would urge that the commission move toward a complete ban on the harvesting of our wild turtles."
The Humane Society of the United States and other animal welfare organizations are supporting the ban as a necessary policy reform to protect Florida's turtles from cruel treatment and near extinction. A group of 32 leading turtle experts, brought together by the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, has recommended a permanent end to the commercial harvest of turtles in Florida. And every major newspaper in the state -- including the Orlando Sentinel, St. Petersburg Times, and Tampa Tribune -- has weighed in with an editorial calling for stronger turtle protections.
One principle of modern wildlife management is that wild animals are a public resource, and should not be killed for private commercial gain. That's why market hunting ended in the early twentieth century, and why state wildlife agencies established hunting seasons, bag limits, and other checks on excessive practices. Collecting thousands of Florida's turtles simply to make a buck by selling them to Asian apothecaries and gourmands flies in the face of scientific wildlife management.
Florida doesn't allow the commercial trade in wild alligators, flamingos, manatees, or other iconic animals associated with the state's heritage and natural beauty. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission should heed Gov. Crist's advice and act quickly to stop the ravaging of these reptiles -- before it's too late for the softshell turtles.
Follow Michael Markarian on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mmarkarian