The Florida Wildlife Agency is expected to drop a commercial turtle farming proposal

Conservationists are divided over a new proposal that would legalize the captive commercial breeding of a major species in Florida. The policy change could help the residents of the Diamondback Terrapin as they remain in high demand as low-maintenance pets and deliverables.

Spokesperson Daniel Parker said the Florida Reptile Rangers want the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to approve captive breeding to reduce the novelty associated with the species’ current population levels and better prepare for imminent habitat loss due to climate change. The group represents pet and hobbyist stores.

The Florida coast includes five of the seven subspecies of Diamondback terrapin. None of them are endangered, but they are all classified as the species with the greatest need for conservation, according to the state agency. Three of the species are exclusive to the state.

The proposal was not expected to last. a Staff Report From the Wildlife Commission, which will be presented during the commission’s meeting on Wednesday, concluded that commercialization will provide uncertain benefits while increasing the risk of harm to species, specifically poaching, trafficking and laundering. Analysis by subject matter experts indicates that captive breeding is likely to, in fact, increase illegal collection and demand for native terrariums, commission spokeswoman Lisa Thompson said.

Parker, who owns under educational license four Diamondback terrapins — Marshmallow, Bug, Mama Crusher, and Sweetie — disagreed.

When animals are tightly regulated, he said, prices go up. Decorative diamond terrapins, a state-specific species, 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, “the hunter catalyzes profits by selling a product with an artificially inflated value.”

He said: “Unfortunately with the FWC, there is an ideology against keeping animals in captivity. I think this is more of an animal rights agenda than a protection agenda. It should be keeping the population sustainable.”

Thompson wrote that public reaction from the FWC’s latest petition has been mixed, with breeders favoring the commercial market and other stakeholders who have expressed concerns about appropriate enforcement and oversight. The vulnerability of the species – along with the risk of contributing to the illegal trade of turtles and increased damage through collection pressure – led the FWC team to recommend existing rules unchanged.

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

Breeding in captivity — which was last allowed in Florida in 2006 — would make terrapins more accessible, and deter poaching, which is just one threat to the species, Parker said.

Decorative diamond terrapins, a state-specific species, fetched more than $1,400 each in 2015, according to a price analysis provided to the state agency by Florida turtle breeders. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Wildlife Commission approved rules to improve the management of wild diamond terrapins in December 2021 as the population declines due to habitat loss, animal trade and the use of food and medicine overseas.

Haley Risley, who works at Gator City Reptiles in Gainesville, said Terrapins aren’t usually looked for as pets, but private hobbyists have been an advocate for captive rebreeding since the original 2006 ban.

Risley said that moving an animal from its original environment into captivity is difficult. If they are born in captivity, they can have fewer health and behavioral problems. It also offers more opportunities to understand the habits of the species: a key task in captive breeding, she said.

The proposed breeding program could also allow confiscated terrapins to be placed by law enforcement with breeders licensed by the Wildlife Agency. Parker said licensing fees could offset administrative costs and fund conservation efforts similar to current operations for venomous reptiles.

The wildlife agency had accepted public comments during its meeting on Wednesday. Comments submitted in advance must be submitted no later than 5pm on Friday.

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