By Aimee Sachs
LAKELAND | The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says it caught two Polk County men and an Okeechobee man poaching a combined 2,100 pounds of live turtles.
FWC spokesman Gary Morse said that to his knowledge, it's the first time the FWC has found people commercially harvesting turtles since a ban was implemented in 2009.
Canh Van Nguyen, 48, of 1226 Fairlee St. in Lakeland and 69-year-old Lieng Su Pham, of 312 Lanceolate Drive in Winter Haven, were arrested in Okeechobee.
The FWC joined forces with the Florida State Attorney's Office in the 19th Judicial Circuit to charge Nguyen and Pham with two felonies and four misdemeanors, Morse said.
Also arrested was Okeechobee turtle farm owner Franklin Gene Harden, 55, who was charged with three felonies and four misdemeanors related to the unlawful purchase of freshwater turtles from the wild, FWC said.
"There was concern of harvest for commercial interest," Morse said. "There are large markets in Europe and Asia for softshell turtles."
The arrests on July 3 were the result of a 3½-month FWC investigation that was preceded by the March 21 arrest of a 31-year-old Lakeland man, My Van Ho of 6935 Raymond Ave., who was caught with 87 live softshell turtles weighing a total of 500 pounds, according to the FWC.
"Turtles are popular, commercially available food throughout much of the world, and as a result, overharvest has occurred in many countries," FWC Lt. George Wilson said in a statement Monday.
Karen Thomas from the Thomas Fish Co. in Eagle Lake said her family's business made "a lot of money" selling turtles commercially before the ban.
"They made it illegal because they felt we would catch all the turtles, and that's impossible," she said. "It's like picking up all the sand at the beach. It can't be done."
"I feel bad for them because it wasn't right for the government to take it away."
Morse said there are turtle farms in Florida that are licensed to breed turtles for the commercial market, and people can obtain a license to recreationally harvest one turtle per day.