Florida House passes turtle bill

The state House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that tightens criminal regulations on the poaching of endangered sea turtles.

In the past, suspected poachers, including one in the Florida Keys recently, have been able to escape conviction because they argued the turtle was already dead and/or cut into parts when they found the remains and they just kept them.

If the bill is eventually passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, just having the turtle parts on their boat or in their possession would be enough to be convicted of felony poaching, according to HB 7013.

Florida Keys state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, had pushed the legislation and spoke in favor of it on Tuesday evening on the house floor when the bill was discussed. The Marathon Turtle Hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach had also been lobbying on behalf of the legislation.

“We are so thankful for Holly carrying the torch to the House floor,” Zirkelbach said. “This is more than we hoped for. This now gives the State Attorney’s Office the tools to prosecute these cases. This is a big win for sea turtles.”

Zirkelbach cited the case of Victor Martin Alvarez, 51, of Miami, who was arrested on May 11, 2013, at Curry Hammock State Park near Marathon after witnesses reported seeing him remove a sea turtle from the beach and put it in a cooler, according to FWC reports.

He was charged with third-degree felony knowingly taking a marine turtle, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in state prison.

Witnesses told officers the green sea turtle was alive when it was placed in the cooler, but Alvarez’s defense at trial was that the turtle was dead and he was holding it to give to authorities.

Veterinarian Dr. Doug Mader, who regularly works with the Marathon Turtle Hospital, testified that the cause of death was hypothermia and that the contents of the turtle stomach indicated it had eaten sea grass within 30 minutes of death.

However state statute was rewritten in 2003 to define the taking of a turtle to mean killing or injuring, which is defined in the law. The problem is that the other two aspects of the law, which makes it illegal to molest or transfer a sea turtle, is not defined. The new bill would clean up that language, according to Raschein and Zirkelbach.

This amendment will ensure that those found in possession of a sea turtle or its parts can be prosecuted by the state to the full extent of the law, no longer able to hide behind ambiguity in the statute’s current wording, Raschein said. Recent cases in the Florida Keys highlighted the need for this amendment, she said.

Raschein worked closely with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Keys Turtle Hospital and the State Attorney’s Office to provide a legislative remedy to this problem, she said.

“One of the most amazing and rare experiences you can have while boating, snorkeling or diving is an encounter with a sea turtle. It is unconscionable to hear of these creatures being harmed, and that the individuals responsible for harming them are not convicted and punished for their actions,” Raschein said. “I thank the Florida Keys Turtle Hospital and our state attorney for bringing this issue to my attention and am proud of the work we have done to make sure we are protecting these precious species for generations to come.”

tohara@keysnews.com

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