Florida wildlife agency expected to shoot down commercialized turtle breeding proposal

Conservationists are divided over a new proposal that would legalize commercial captive breeding of one of Florida’s flagship species. The policy change could help diamondback terrapin populations as they remain in high demand as low-maintenance pets and poachable goods.

The US Association of Reptile Keepers of Florida wants the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to approve captive breeding to reduce the novelty associated with the species’ current population size and to better prepare for upcoming habitat loss due to climate change said spokesman Daniel Parker. The group represents pet shops and hobbyists.

Florida’s coast is home to five of the seven diamondback sea turtle subspecies. None are threatened with extinction, but all are designated as species in greatest need of protection, according to the state agency. Three of the species are exclusive to the state.

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The proposal was not expected to survive. A personnel report from the Wildlife Commission, due to be presented during a commission meeting on Wednesday, concluded commercialization would bring uncertain benefits while increasing the risk of harm to the species, particularly poaching, trafficking and money laundering.

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

When animals are tightly regulated, prices just go up, he said. Ornate diamondback terrapins, a state-reserved species, fetched more than $1,400 each in 2015, according to a price analysis provided to the Florida State Agency of Turtle Breeders.

“Like an illegal drug dealer,” Parker wrote, “a poacher is profit-motivated to sell a product at an artificially inflated value.”

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

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Miami is the third-busiest US port for turtle exports, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, with an estimated half a million turtles shipped annually

Captive breeding — last allowed in Florida in 2006 — would make the turtles more accessible, Parker said, and prevent poaching, just a 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, pet trade and use for food and medicine abroad.

Terrapins aren’t typically wanted as pets, said Hallie Risley, who works at Gator City Reptiles in Gainesville, but since the original 2006 ban, private hobbyists have been campaigning for the reintroduction of captive breeding.

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It’s difficult to transfer an animal from its natural habitat into captivity, Risley said. If they are born in captivity, they may have fewer health and behavioral problems. It also offers more opportunities to understand the species’ habits: the main purpose of captive breeding, she said.

The proposed breeding program could also allow terrapins confiscated by law enforcement to be placed with breeders licensed by the Wildlife Agency. A license fee, Parker said, could offset management costs and fund conservation efforts, similar to existing venomous reptile operations.

The Wildlife Authority took public comments during its meeting on Wednesday. Comments submitted in advance must be sent no later than 5:00 p.m. on Friday.

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