Taking Care of Turtles

Scott signs tougher penalties for poachers

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Thursday that closes a loophole that turtle advocates say has allowed turtle poachers to beat the rap in criminal cases.

The bill redefines what constitutes turtle poaching. Now, just having turtle parts on their boat or in their possession could be enough to convict a person of felony poaching.

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

“This is most exciting,” Marathon Turtle Hospital Manager Bette Zirkelbach said. “I have sat in court and watched defendants get off. It’s good to see some teeth put into state law on this issue, which will give prosecutors the tools they need to prosecute cases. It’s been a long road, but everybody worked together to make it happen.”

The new regulation was an amendment state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, attached to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission bill.

“Our sea turtles are such an amazing and beautiful species, so the recent cases of turtle mutilation were especially disturbing,” Raschein said. “I am thrilled that we were able correct the loophole in existing law this legislative session and send a message that it is unacceptable to harm these precious creatures.”

Victor Martin Alvarez, 51, of Miami, was arrested in May 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.

Prosecutors charged him with a third-degree felony of 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.

Marathon veterinarian Dr. Doug Mader testified that the cause of death was hypothermia and that the contents of the turtle stomach indicated it had eaten seagrass 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 make it illegal to molest or transfer a sea turtle, are not defined. The new bill would clean up that language, according to Raschein and Zirkelbach.

tohara@keysnews.com

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