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A new rule on recreational blue crab traps to protect Florida's terrapins goes into effect

 Ornate diamondback terrapin in Hernando County.
Daniel Parker
Ornate diamondback terrapin in Hernando County.

A new Florida rule aimed at protecting diamondback terrapin turtles from drowning in recreational blue crab traps went into effect this month, but advocates said they want the same regulations for the commercial fishery.

There are five subspecies of diamondback terrapins living in Florida: Carolina, Florida east coast, mangrove, ornate, and Mississippi — three of which are endemic to the state.

But their populations are on the decline as they have to survive multiple threats, including poaching for the international pet trade. The highest documented sale of a single terrapin in Asia has been over $4,000.

Some activists recently tried to get commercial captive breeding approved to alleviate the pressure put on those illegally captured in the wild, but state wildlife officials denied it in December 2022.

Also, more than 50% of their original habitat has been lost over the years. State sea level rise projections show that the mangrove and the Florida east coast terrapins are expected to lose all of their current habitat in 70 to 100 years.

On top of that, the turtles live in the same brackish water as blue crabs so they can drown in traps baited for the crustaceans.

 Carolina diamondback terrapins drowned in a crab trap in Northeast Florida.
Holland Incitti
Carolina diamondback terrapins drowned in a crab trap in Northeast Florida.

In 2021, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided that recreational blue crabbers must use a bycatch reduction device, or BRD, which limits the size of the trap enclosure so that crabs can still squeeze their way in but terrapins cannot.

Elise Bennett is the Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a petition asking for this move in 2020, along with Florida Turtle Conservation Trust and Diamondback Terrapin Working Group.

"I think it's a really great step in the right direction and really relieving to know now that all these recreational traps are much safer for our diamondback terrapins," Bennett said. "It's also a reminder that we still have a long way to go with the commercial fishery and that we can't rest easy for this species until we know that it has the full protections across all the coasts in Florida."

Bennett said these protections were “hard fought,” but that it was a disappointment when the commission walked back its initial proposal to require these protections in the commercial fishery, as well.

"Regardless of whether a trap is commercial or recreational, it's still a threat to terrapins, and terrapin experts across the U.S. and even international experts on this species have urged that states should adopt across-the-board requirements for these BRDs in both commercial and recreational fisheries," Bennett said.

Commercial crabbers have expressed concern that the devices will keep larger crabs from entering the traps and impact the number of crabs they can catch, but Bennett said studies show there's no difference in the number of crabs caught, although there may be a small difference in size.

“They're incredibly effective in Florida. They've been tested and shown to keep out 73% of terrapins that tried to get in will having little to no impact on the size of crabs,” Bennett said.

The FWC decided it would conduct its own study on how the devices would economically affect commercial blue crabbers, but the findings have not yet been released.

“The goal was for it to be completed by the end of the year 2023 — this year — but we've seen on the website that it appears that the study might already be complete, and yet we haven't seen the commission revisit those rules,” Bennett said.

The FWC did not respond in time for this publication to a request for comment on its commercial blue crab fishery study, and on how they plan to regulate recreational blue crabbers.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of All Things Consideredfor WGCU News.
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