The tip first came in last week.
Someone had been scouring the Atlantic beaches of Jupiter Island, Fla., state wildlife biologists were told, poaching freshly laid sea turtle eggs buried there in the sand. One stretch of beach in particular was being targeted, officials said, an area behind a coastal home.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers increased patrols in the area, watching for thieves.
On Friday, officials said, they caught their culprit.
Glenn Robert Shaw, 49, of Tequesta, Fla., was arrested on the beach late Friday night after officers watched him scoop more than 100 eggs from the sand as a female loggerhead sea turtle was laying them, FWC officials said. Shaw was booked into the Palm Beach County Jail on a third-degree felony charge for endangering the protected species. His alleged crime is punishable by up to five years in prison, according to officials, and a fine of up to $5,000.
Authorities kept 15 of the 107 eggs for evidence and DNA testing, then reburied the remaining 92. Officials hope that the recovered eggs, the size and shape of ping-pong balls with a soft white shell, still have a chance to hatch and flourish despite being man-handled and reburied.
“Protecting Florida’s natural resources is something we take seriously and we’re thankful that this individual was prevented from doing further harm to this imperiled species,” FWC Capt. Jeff Ardelean said in a statement, according to the Palm Beach Post.
The illegal sea turtle egg trade is a lucrative business, although not overly common in Florida. Ardelean told CBS12 that FWC has investigated more than 40 cases of sea turtle egg poaching in the same southeast Florida region where Friday’s incident occurred.
Black markets for the eggs have been identified in South Florida, CBS12 reported, including Miami, West Palm Beach and Riviera Beach. The eggs can go for $20 or $30 dollars per dozen, Ardelean told the TV station, depending on the time of year and availability.
Although most countries, including the United States, have laws banning the harvest of sea turtle eggs for food, according to FWC, those regulations are not well enforced.
In some places, sea turtle eggs are prized as an aphrodisiac. In some parts of the Caribbean, Ardelean told CBS12, the sea turtle egg trade is legal.
“Thankfully poaching isn’t a huge concern in the state of Florida,” Sarah Hirsch, a researcher with the Loggerhead Marine Life Center, told the TV station. “We do see it here but we do see it occasionally. We do have a lot of protections here, and we have a lot of great volunteers that are out here looking out for those nests.”
The loggerhead sea turtle, which on average weighs 200 pounds and is three feet long, was listed as a threatened species in 1978 under the Endangered Species Act, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Its nesting season begins in April and lasts through September, with peaks in June and July. The females reach sexual maturity between ages 32 and 35, officials estimate, and return to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs across an average of four nests per season.
In each nest, a loggerhead will deposit about 100 eggs every two weeks. In Florida, it takes those eggs about two months to hatch. Only about one in 1,000 sea turtles survive to adulthood, according to FWC.
Sea turtles are among the oldest creatures on earth and have remained essentially 110 million years, according to the FWC, but egg poaching and other environmental and human hazards cast an uncertain shadow on their future.
Last month, Susan Tellem, founder of World Turtle Day, emphasized in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor the extreme concern conservationists have for the future of sea turtles.
“They outlived the dinosaur,” she said, “and are in danger of disappearing from habitat destruction, the cruel pet trade and live food markets worldwide.”