Conservationists are divided over a new proposal that would legalize commercial captive breeding of one of Florida’s flagship species. The policy change could help diamondback terrapin populations, as they remain in high demand as low-maintenance pets and poachable commodities.

The American Reptile Keepers Association of Florida wants the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to approve captive breeding to reduce novelty associated with the species’ current population levels and better prepare for the impending loss of habitat due to climate change, spokesman Daniel Parker said. The group represents pet stores and hobbyists.

The Florida coastline is home to five of the seven diamondback terrapin subspecies. None are endangered, but all are designated as species in greatest need of conservation, according to the state agency. Three of the species are exclusive to the state.

The proposal was not to survive. A staff report of the wildlife commission, which will be presented at a commission meeting on Wednesday, concluded that commercialization would bring uncertain benefits while increasing the risk of harm to the species, particularly poaching, trafficking and bleaching.

Parker, who under an educational license owns four Diamondback Turtles – Marshmallow, Bug, Mama Crusher and Sweetie – disagreed.

When animals are tightly regulated, he said, prices only go up. Diamondback ornate turtles, a state-exclusive species, fetched more than $1,400 each in 2015, according to a price analysis provided to the state agency by Florida turtle breeders.

“Like an illegal drug dealer,” Parker wrote, “a poacher is driven by profits from selling a product with an artificially inflated value.”

“Unfortunately with FWC,” he said, “there is an ideology against keeping animals in captivity. I believe it is more of an animal rights program than a conservation program Conservation should be about the sustainability of populations

Miami is the third-busiest U.S. port for exporting turtles, according to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with about half a million turtles shipped each year.

Captive breeding — last allowed in Florida in 2006 — would make turtles more accessible, Parker said, and deter poaching, a single threat to the species.

The wildlife commission approved rules to improve the management of wild diamondback tortoises in December 2021, as populations declined due to habitat loss, the animal trade and their use for food and medicine abroad.

Terrapins aren’t commonly sought after as pets, said Hallie Risley, who works at Gator City Reptiles in Gainesville, but private hobbyists have advocated for captive breeding to be reinstated since the original ban in 2006.

Any animal’s transition from its native environment to captivity is difficult, Risley said. If they are born in captivity, they may have fewer health and behavioral issues. It also allows for more opportunities to understand the habits of the species: the core mission on captive breeding, she said.

The proposed breeding program could also allow turtles confiscated by law enforcement to be placed with breeders approved by the wildlife agency. A licensing fee, Parker said, could offset administrative costs and fund conservation efforts similar to existing poisonous reptile operations.

The wildlife agency was accepting public comments at its meeting on Wednesday. Comments submitted in advance must be sent no later than Friday 5:00 p.m.