For Immediate Release, December 16, 2021

Contact:

Elise Bennett, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 755-6950, ebennett@biologicaldiversity.org
George L. Heinrich, Florida Turtle Conservation Trust, (727) 599-1843, george@heinrichecologicalservices.com

Florida Approves Rule to Protect Diamondback Terrapin Turtles From Collection, Drowning in Recreational Crab Traps

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.— Following nearly two years of advocacy and a petition filed by conservationists and turtle experts, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved a final rule today to protect diamondback terrapins from wild collection and drowning in recreational blue crab traps.

The rule requires owners of all recreational blue crab traps to reduce terrapin bycatch by using traps with rigid funnel entrances measuring no more than 2 x 6 inches or by installing bycatch reduction devices of the same size by March 1, 2023. The Commission opted to postpone consideration of similar requirements in the commercial blue crab fishery until staff complete a study of terrapin interactions with the state’s commercial fishery.

“We’re so glad Florida is working to protect our terrapins, but that work isn’t done till the state addresses threats from the commercial blue crab fishery too,” said Elise Bennett, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on protecting Florida wildlife. “We expect the Fish and Wildlife Commission to promptly revisit the issue once it completes its own study. In the meantime, this rule will give these beautiful turtles some protection from the more limited recreational fishery.”

The final rule also prohibits collecting terrapins from the wild and possessing them without a permit. This prohibition will help reduce the removal of adult terrapins from the wild and make it more difficult to poach and traffic the species.

Diamondback terrapins, found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Massachusetts to Texas, are the only turtles in the world that live exclusively in coastal estuaries. These estuaries are also home to blue crabs, which are trapped in crab pots by an active blue crab fishery.

Baited blue crab traps are known to trap and drown terrapins, while commercial fleets of traps are capable of steadily removing individual turtles until a population cannot sustain itself. Abandoned or lost traps, also called ghost traps, can capture terrapins by the dozen. Experts agree that blue crab traps pose the greatest threat to the diamondback terrapin’s existence.

“Requiring bycatch reduction devices on recreational and commercial blue crab traps is the single greatest action the Fish and Wildlife Commission can take to protect terrapins in Florida,” said George L. Heinrich, executive director of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust. “We commend the Commission for requiring bycatch reduction devices on recreational traps and are hopeful protections in the commercial fishery will follow.”

The Commission’s forthcoming study of Florida’s commercial blue crab fishery follows a large existing body of science regarding terrapin interactions with blue crab traps. In a 2020 statement, the Diamondback Terrapin Working Group, an organization of academics, scientists, regulators working to promote terrapin conservation, concluded that scientific data are “abundant and clear” that commercial and recreational use of blue crab traps threaten terrapin populations and bycatch reduction devices effectively reduce terrapin deaths with minimal effect on crab catch.

A group of leading international turtle experts also urged Florida to require the use of excluder devices on all crab traps in state waters based on the existing body of science, emphasizing that a fleet of blue crab traps is capable of removing enough individual terrapins to cause population declines — or wipe them out completely.

People who currently legally possess terrapins will have 90 days from the rule change to receive a permit to continuing owning them.

Background

The diamondback terrapin is known for its stunning diamond-patterned shell and speckled skin. It lives in coastal marshes, tidal creeks, mangroves and other estuarine habitats, where it primarily feeds on snails, clams, mussels and small crabs. The terrapin is potentially a keystone species in salt marshes and mangroves, helping to maintain the ecological health of those ecosystems.

There are currently seven recognized subspecies of diamondback terrapin, and Florida is home to five, three of which only live there. Florida also has the most coastal habitat of all the states in the species’ range.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List ranks the diamondback terrapin’s global status as vulnerable and describes its population trend as decreasing. Threats to the species include habitat destruction and degradation, road mortality, crab-pot mortality, sea-level rise caused by global climate change, pollution, boat strikes, predation, collection for commercial and personal purposes, and inadequate regulatory measures to address these threats.

In January 2020 the Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Turtle Conservation Trust and Diamondback Terrapin Working Group filed a petition asking the Commission to require bycatch reduction devices on all recreational and commercial blue crab traps in state waters. When affixed to crab-pot entrance funnels, these small and inexpensive devices prevent most terrapins from entering the pot while having little to no effect on crab haul.

Diamondback_terrapin_by_George_L_Heinrich__FPWC_Ok_for_media_use.JPG
Diamondback terrapin. Photo courtesy of George L. Heinrich. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.