Source: South Florida Sun
Date: November 19, 2008
Thousands of Florida softshell turtles end up on dinner plates in Asia
Fishermen pluck softshells from Florida's waters to satisfy Asian appetites
By David Fleshler | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Hauled from canals and marshes around Lake Okeechobee, turtles arrive in the late afternoon at Jones Fish House, a corrugated metal structure on the Palm Beach County side of the lake.
A truck sent by Tamarac seafood broker Wan To Ho pulls up every few days and takes the turtles to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport for a journey that will end in the soup bowls of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai.
The international trade in Florida softshell turtles has become a significant business in Florida and other southeastern states, as Asian countries scour the globe for savory meats that have become rare at home. In September the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission imposed an 20-turtle daily limit on commercial fishing of softshell turtles, but it's unclear whether that will have much effect because no one knows how many fishermen there are and how many turtles they've been catching.
Distinguished by its large size, tubular snout and flat, leathery shell, the Florida softshell turtle is the state's most popular turtle for eating and export, although other kinds are caught for food or the pet trade. While softshells historically have been abundant, many scientists say it's risky to allow a massive, market-driven catch of the largest, most reproductively active turtles without a careful assessment of the effect on Florida's lakes, rivers and canals."The real problem is we have no idea how many people are fishing, we don't know how many they're taking," said Peter Meylan, professor of biology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, who was among 32 scientists who signed a letter urging the state to impose a one-turtle-a-day limit. "Two guys fishing together can catch 40 turtles in a day. You're talking about a lot of biomass being taking out of ecosystems all over Florida."
Ken Haddad, executive director of the state wildlife commission, issued a statement Tuesday saying the scientists' concerns "registered with us loud and clear," describing the 20-turtle limit as "interim" and promising to adopt a new strategy by June.
At Jones Fish House, just north of Pahokee, a town struggling with poverty and drugs, a sign announces We Buy Softshell Turtles. The fish house pays up to $1.20 a pound, but the sign warns it will reject turtles that are bleeding or smell bad.
As men cleaned fish at tables in the back, manager Lasonda Jones said she sells about 1,000 pounds of turtles a week to Chinese buyers, starting about a year ago. The new catch limits will harm people in an impoverished part of the state, she said.
"Those people are going to be out of a job," she said, seated near a sign listing prices for frog legs, alligator, shrimp and catfish. "Those people work hard; sunburned from having to be outside for 12 hours."
William Shockley, an Okeechobee fisherman, catches turtles on lines with about 250 hooks baited with chicken or bacon. He said the turtles remain plentiful, particularly because most of the state's lakes are off-limits to commercial fishing. And as the restoration of the Everglades creates new marshes and open-water areas, he said, Florida softshell turtles will see their habitat expand.
"I was born and raised in South Florida, and I don't want to see any of our turtles go extinct," he said.
Driving the business is the rising wealth of China, Vietnam, Malaysia and other Asian nations, where the desire for exotic meats and traditional medical ingredients has increased demand for such items as turtle and shark fins.
"In China and Vietnam, freshwater turtle and tortoise meat is a delicacy," said Barney Long, a wildlife biologist with the World Wildlife Fund.
A law enforcement bulletin by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimated in March that 1,600 to 3,000 pounds of turtles were shipped to Asia every week from each of the airports of Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
One Fort Lauderdale seafood exporter buys 15,000 pounds a week, or 1,000 to 1,500 turtles, according to another state report. Kevin Enge, the biologist who wrote the report, confirmed that it was referring to Wan To Ho, president of Mr. Sushi Catering, of Tamarac.
Reached by phone, Ho said he buys only a "few thousands pounds" a week. He agreed the business needs more study and regulation, but said his business puts money in a lot of pockets.
"I think I'm not doing anything wrong," said Ho, who emigrated from southern China more than 30 years ago. "I help export. I help the fishermen."
David Fleshler can be reached at or 954-356-4535.