Meanwhile in Florida…apparently you can be arrested for trafficking turtles. On Friday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) announced they arrested two Fort Meyers men accused of being involved in a massive turtle trafficking ring, with a black-market value of $200,000. They called this “the state’s largest seizure of turtles in recent history.”

Back in August, more than 4,000 turtles were taken and sold over a six-month period. FWC said this included Florida box turtles, Eastern box turtles, Striped mud turtles, Florida mud turtles, Chicken turtles, Florida softshell turtles, Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtles, Spotted turtles and Diamondback terrapins.  Using a search warrant, they found poachers in possession of the illegally harvested turtles, along with the skull and shell of a protected Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle.

The FWC launched an undercover investigation after receiving a tip in February 2018. Through surveillance and other investigative tactics, FWC investigators determined that a ring of well-organized wildlife traffickers was illegally catching and selling wild turtles to large-scale reptile dealers and illegal distributors, who shipped most of them overseas on the black market.

The Turtle Traffickers

Michael Boesenberg, 39, and Michael Clemons, 23, were both arrested an suspected of leading the turtle trappers to illegally collect as many as possible, who would then sell them to a buyer with links to Asian pet markets, and selling, possessing, and transporting turtles taken from the wild, collectively.  Clemons was arrested on six counts of selling, possessing and transporting turtles taken from the wild.

“Putting a stop to this criminal enterprise is a significant win for conservation,” said Col. Curtis Brown, head of FWC’s Division of Law Enforcement. “Arresting people engaged in illegal wildlife trafficking supports our environment and legal businesses. It is especially positive and rewarding to be able to release many of the turtles back into the wild.”

Florida Says Leave Wild Turtles Alone

Florida has approved strong legal conservation measures for freshwater turtles. Under Florida law, the sale of wild-caught freshwater turtles are prohibited.

According to the FWC, the poachers have been depleting turtle populations so much that they had to expand their illegal hunting into other part of the state—Lee County is believed to be the hardest hit by wildlife traffickers. Depending upon the species, the poached turtles are sold for up to $300 and retailed for as much as $10,000 each in Asia, FWC wrote in a news release. Turtles sold within a month of being harvested have yielded around $60,000 in profit.

We know that the global black market in live animals includes traffickers smuggling protected species of turtles out of the United States, usually for export to the Asian pet market,” said Dr. Craig Stanford, Chairman of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. “This sinister and illegal trade threatens the future of many species of North American animals, and as one of the most threatened animal groups on the planet, turtles are at the forefront of our concern.”

The illegal commercialization of wildlife ranks fourth behind guns, drugs and human smuggling and, in many instances, is connected due to the monetary gain. The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates illegal wildlife trade in the US at $19 billion annual income.

FWC rules prohibit taking or possessing turtles from the wild that are listed on Florida’s imperiled species list, which include:

  • Alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temminckii)
  • Barbour’s map turtles (Graptemys barbouri)
  • Suwannee cooters (Pseudemys suwanniensis)

Prohibited: Snapping Turtles and Cooters

Also prohibited is taking species that look similar to the imperiled species, which include common snapping turtles and cooters:

  • Cooters (Pseudemys sp.)
  • Escambia Map Turtle (Graptemys ernsti)
  • Snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina)

For all other freshwater turtles, take is limited to one turtle per person per day (midnight to midnight) from the wild for noncommercial use. The transport of more than one turtle per day is prohibited, unless the transporter has a license for sale or exhibition of wildlife, aquaculture certification from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, or documentation that their turtles were legally obtained (proof of purchase).

Freshwater turtles can only be taken by hand, dip net, minnow seine or baited hook. Most freshwater turtles may be taken year-round. Taking turtles with bucket traps, snares, or shooting with firearms is prohibited. Softshell turtles may not be taken from the wild from May 1 to July 31. In addition, collecting of freshwater turtle eggs is prohibited.

Did You Say You Have A Gator In Your Pants?

Back in May, FWC cited two people for turtle collection after a traffic stop in Punta Gorda.

The passenger had a backpack at her feet filled with 42 small three-striped mud turtles and a softshell turtle. When deputies asked her if she had captured anything else, she pulled an alligator out of her yoga pants.