New rule in Florida limits catch of softshell turtles

LAKE PLACID, Fla. _ William Shockley and his teenage son are fishing for freshwater turtles the same way their family has done it for four generations in south-central Florida: deploying about a mile of nylon line on four sets of buoys holding 1,000 small hooks baited with bits of bacon in the clear, shallow waters of Lake Grassy.

They're hoping to catch as many as 40 softshells on their trot lines -- the maximum allowed under a Florida interim rule that took effect Thursday -- to sell to a market in nearby Lakeport for $1.50 per pound. The rule, which allows commercial turtle harvesters to take 20 softshells per license per day and recreational fishers to take five per day, was adopted to slow down catches while the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission works on a long-term management plan for the state's native amphibians.

Besides closing certain waters, including portions of the St. Johns River, to commercial turtle harvest, previous statutes limited the season for softshells to nine months. Other species -- such as alligator snapping turtles, box turtles, loggerhead musk turtles, Barbour's map turtles, river cooters and diamondback terrapins -- already were off limits to commercial harvest.

But a group of turtle scientists from Florida and across the country insist that those restrictions are insufficient to conserve species threatened by insatiable demand from international markets, as well as loss of habitat and natural predation at home.

Shockley doesn't believe softshells are in any peril.

"It would be impossible to overfish the softshell turtle population in Florida unless you open all the closed areas,'' Shockley said. ``There are more protected areas for turtles than there are unprotected areas.''

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