SCCF Fights Invasive Plant, Turtle Trafficking

by SC Reporter Teresa Vazquez

The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation works to keep the islands’ wildlife safe from harm — an invasive fern and turtle trafficking are on their radar.

Photo by SC Associate Publisher Chuck Larsen

The old-world climbing fern is an invasive plant found throughout South and Central Florida that has caused significant damage to the Florida wetlands, according to SCCF.

“If left unnoticed or unchecked on Sanibel, the fern could have irreversible and devastating impacts to our natural habitats,” said SCCF Land Steward Victor Young. “SCCF and our partner agencies continue to monitor for infestations throughout the island.”

Originally from the African and Asian continents to the Pacific Islands, it made its way to Florida around 1965. The fern spread once it escaped cultivation in or around Martin County, Fla.

Since then, it has spread due to its spores— which can establish quickly— and Florida’s similarities to its native climate, SCCF Wildlife & Habitat Director Chris Lechowicz said.

Few spottings had occurred on the islands, but awareness is important to avoid their establishment.

Photo by SC Associate Publisher Chuck Larsen

“They kill native vegetation by smothering the plant and denying it sunlight. This is even true of large canopies such as slash pine and oaks,” Lechowicz said.

If the plant is spotted, Lechowicz said to contact SCCF who will send out a press release. Then, the plant must be exterminated promptly with herbicide before their spores spread.

Another issue facing the islands is turtle trafficking. Florida box turtles, diamondback terrapins, striped mud turtles, and Florida mud turtles are being affected most, Lechowicz said.

“A large turtle trafficking bust/confiscation occurred in 2019 that comprised hundreds of southwest Florida turtles, including turtles from Sanibel,” Lechowicz said. ”It is very likely that this activity is still occurring on the island from another group.”

Florida Box Turtles. Photo by SC Kyle Sweet

Despite the pandemic, illegal shipments has persisted in other states. An increased in demand for certain species has further threatened the local turtles, Lechowicz explained.

Turtle trafficking is fueled by the international pet trade business with Southeast Asia playing a significant part. In this region, turtles are eaten and used to create traditional medicine, but Lechowicz explained they mostly end up in the pet trade.

“There are federal, state and even municipal laws, such as the Sanibel Code, that outlaw the collection and export of wild-caught turtles,” Lechowicz said. “But turtle trafficking rings have formed to smuggle the poached turtles out of the country in a variety or largely inhumane ways.”

Turtles were around long before humanity, yet over half of the 360 species of turtles are in trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, human consumption, traditional medicines, and the pet trade business are responsible for this.

Most of their problems are caused by the human hand, thus it is up to humanity to help save them. The SCCF formed a Terrestrial and Freshwater Turtle Volunteer Group to help conduct data on the island’s turtles to aid in the mission.

For almost 20 years, they have been conducting research on the nonmarine turtles and have marked turtles with notches, microchips, and photography for identification purposes, and to deter poaching, Lechowicz said.

Residents can aid in the fight against poachers by reporting sighting of Florida box turtles, diamondback terrapins, mud turtles and chicken turtles to SCCF.

To do so they should call the SCCF Wildlife & Habitat Management office 239-472-3984 or email . Lechowicz said to take pictures of the turtle is possible, especially those with notches in the edges of their shell which identify them as part of the project.

Additionally, Sanibel Police Department’s non-emergency phone number (239 472-3111) should be called when someone other than the SCCF Terrestrial and Freshwater Turtle Volunteer Group is seen capturing turtles, setting turtle traps, etc.

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