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UNF Professor Petitions Florida To Protect Vulnerable Turtles From Drowning

Diamondback terrapin turtle resting on the sand
George Heinrich
Diamondback terrapin turtles can get trapped in blue crab pots and drown after a few hours depending on water temperatures.

A University of North Florida professor is leading an effort to petition state wildlife regulators to protect diamondback terrapin turtles along Florida’s coastlines.

Biology Professor Joseph Butler has been researching the species of turtles since 1995. They’re the only turtles in North America that live in brackish waters, which contain a mix of saltwater and freshwater.

Butler said since the 1940s, the turtles have been getting caught in blue crab pots underwater.

“The crabs, of course, have gills, so they can breathe underwater,” Butler said. “But the turtle has lungs. So it’s just gonna drown eventually.”

In the early 2000s, Butler and his colleague George Heinrich researched how to prevent the turtles from getting trapped in the pots.

They found that small bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) inserted at the entrances of the pots kept the turtles out while allowing the crabs to continue entering.

Orange bycatch reduction devices on a wooden table
Credit Sky Lebron / WJCT News
Bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) are placed on the entrances of the crab pots, making it much harder for the diamondback terrapin to fit through.

“Our research showed that we could prevent 73.2% of the terrapins from drowning with the use of these BRDs,” said Heinrich, who is the executive director of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust. “And there was no difference in the sex of crabs captured, the numbers of crabs captured and the size of crabs captured.”

The two brought their research findings to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2007. They hoped it would persuade the state to create regulations to fit all the blue crab pots in the state with BRDs.

In 13 years, there is still no regulation on the crab pots.

“Absolutely frustrating,” Butler said.

This past week, the two co-signed a petition along with the Center for Biological Diversity asking the state once again to adopt regulations that would protect the species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks the species as vulnerable, meaning it could become endangered.

“Unfortunately, it appears that there just maybe isn’t the political will to move forward and take this step to protect terrapins, which is an awful shame for the species,” said Elise Bennett, a reptile and amphibian staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s also a shame for us, the people who live in Florida. Unlike a lot of ecological problems ,which are quite complicated, the solution here is really a win-win.”

While Butler is frustrated with the lack of action from FWC, he said he understands what goes into decisions on these issues.

Professor Butler pointing at diamondback terrapin shells in his laboratory
Credit Sky Lebron / WJCT News
Biology Professor Joseph Butler has spent almost 25 years researching the diamondback terrapin.

“Terrapins are not the only species out there, and terrapin biologists are no the only stakeholders in this issue,” Butler said. “FWC has to consider all sides…crab fishermen are stakeholders, they pay taxes, and they don’t want to be required to use these [BRDs].”

The researchers said the BRDs are cheap devices. If the regulations were passed, they could receive grants and set up a clinic where fishers could bring the crab pots to get the devices installed.

“These guys could bring their traps, we’d put them in, and that’s it,” Butler said. “And then if we have future crab traps and Florida requires [BRDs] to be put on from the start, then we don’t need to worry about it after that.”

The diamondback box terrapins are found in 16 states. Several states have already regulated the pots to have BRDs, including New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Delaware. Virginia encourages crabbers to use BRDs on crab pots by offering lower cost licensing rates for modified pots.

However, 20% of the species lives in unregulated Florida.

In Northeast Florida, the turtles are found from the St. Marys River to Daytona Beach. Butler said many of the habitats near Jacksonville are disturbed, but farther north toward Fernandina Beach there are some healthier populations.

“It just seems immoral to let this happen,” Butler said. “It seems as though we don’t – as humans – as though we don’t have enough responsibility.”

Since the petition was filed on Jan. 28, Bennet said the FWC has 30 days to begin making regulations. If not, regulators must provide a written reason why they won’t.  

Sky Lebron can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron

Former WJCT News reporter