Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, February 27, 2023

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 Rule to Protect Diamondback Terrapins From Recreational Crab Traps to Take Effect Wednesday

Turtle Species Still Needs Protection From Commercial Fishery

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.— A new rule aimed at protecting diamondback terrapin turtles from drowning in recreational blue crab traps will go into effect Wednesday, March 1.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rule stems from nearly two years of advocacy and a petition filed by conservationists and turtle experts. But the commission has yet to consider badly needed protections in the commercial blue crab fishery.

Under the new rule, all recreational blue crab traps must have rigid entrances of no more than 2 inches by 6 inches or bycatch reduction devices, or “BRDs,” of the same size.

When approving the recreational traps rule in 2021, the commission postponed consideration of similar requirements for the commercial blue crab fishery until commission staff completed a study of terrapin interactions with the fishery, despite abundant evidence that commercial crabbing also threatens terrapins. The commission website indicates this research is complete, but the agency has not revisited protective rules.

“It’s a relief to know Florida’s terrapins will get a reprieve from recreational blue crab traps, but the threat from commercial crab traps still looms large,” said Elise Bennett, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “To protect our precious terrapins, the commission needs to finish what it started and revisit protections in the commercial fishery too.”

“The conservation community recognizes that the single greatest action that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission can do would be to require the use of bycatch-reduction devices on all crab traps used in Florida waters,” said George L. Heinrich, executive director of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust. “While requiring their use on recreational traps is a good step forward, it only begins to address the problem.”

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

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

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 can steadily remove individual turtles until a population can’t 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.

Background

Diamondback terrapins are known for stunning diamond-patterned shells and speckled skin. They live in coastal marshes and other estuarine habitats, where they primarily feed on snails, clams, mussels and small crabs. The terrapin is potentially a keystone species in salt marshes and mangroves, helping to maintain their ecological health.

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’s Red List ranks the diamondback terrapin’s global status as vulnerable and describes its population trend as decreasing. Threats include habitat destruction and degradation, crab-pot mortality, sea-level rise caused by climate change, pollution, boat strikes, 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 Florida’s wildlife 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, inexpensive devices prevent most terrapins from entering the pot while having little to no effect on crab haul.

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.

The Florida Turtle Conservation Trust (FTCT) was formed in 1999 by a group of Florida biologists and conservationists concerned with the conservation of Florida turtles. The FTCT’s purpose is to promote the conservation of all Florida turtle species and the preservation of intact, free-ranging populations and their associated ecosystems throughout the state of Florida. The FTCT is committed to and supports education, conservation, research, and management efforts with the above goals in mind.

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