By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"The things they tell you about eggs isn't always true, man," Peterkine says with a nod of his head. "You hears this and you hears that, but I'm the one who knows."
At age 46, Peterkine claims to have poached sea turtle eggs since his father taught him how decades ago. Back then, police didn't care much about poachers' raiding nests, and many men in Riviera Beach taught their sons about the supposed machismo hidden inside sea turtle eggs.
Most poachers use fishing poles or broom handles to find eggs, as Keel did in 1998, but Peterkine boasts that the good ones employ only their eyes, even in the tar-black darkness of a moonless beach. "You can see 'em glow through the sand," he says with a wide smile, showing a mouth full of gold broken up by empty tooth sockets. "You can see 'em. They're green, right through the sand."
Unloading a bucket of sea turtle eggs in Riviera Beach doesn't take long, Peterkine claims. Through word of mouth, he sells them outside his home on a residential street of '50s style, rectangular houses or in front of convenience stores on nearby Dixie Highway. Like most dealers, Peterkine knows better than to go to the beach himself. He's been convicted of poaching twice in the past 22 years and has served a month in jail. To protect himself from arrest, he says he hires crackheads and gives them the rundown on how to spot a nest before dropping them off at the beach. He tells them how to cover up the evidence by tossing sand as the turtles do while digging nests. He warns the crackheads that only fresh eggs sell; they harden after a couple of days in the ground.
To protect himself, Peterkine says he sells only to people he knows. He wouldn't say what kind of profit he earns, but typically poachers garner as little as 50 cents an egg, while dealers ask for $3 on the streets. Each nest, with about 100 eggs, could return a $250 profit for a middleman like Peterkine. He justifies his role in the poaching business by explaining that it's legal in other countries. He has family in the Caribbean, where the eggs are a delicacy, and he knows they are openly sold on the streets of some South American countries.
Then the lanky man stands up to shoo a floppy-eared dog back into his house before speaking angrily about his place in life: "I might not be a literate man, but I knows things. I knows how to find them eggs. That's always gonna be good for somethin'." He continues to speak of poaching until his wife comes home from work, when, after a look from her, he only shakes his head when asked about the eggs.
After witnessing a sea turtle's trek up the beach to lay her eggs, one can easily understand why these creatures have caught the public's attention. As their flippers barely push them across the beach, their oval eyes wink in fatigue. They struggle for hours to build a nest of sand before an exhausting trip back into the sea.
Two of the turtles that typically lay eggs in Florida, the green and the leatherback, are listed by federal regulators as endangered; the third, the loggerhead, is designated as threatened. Perhaps the best-known of the dozens of varieties that nest in the state, the loggerhead is named for its massive skull and powerful, shellfish-smashing jaw. Although three-foot-long adults can weigh 350 pounds, their hatchlings are not much bigger than palmetto bugs.
Florida outlawed the poaching of sea turtle eggs in 1953, but a shortage of game wardens meant that sting operations -- the primary method of busting the lawbreakers -- were rare. Poaching arrests didn't become common until the 1980s, when conservation efforts became popular.
But even today, when turtles appear on a state license plate and are held in the same high regard as manatees or dolphins, wildlife officers have little opportunity to catch poachers. The state's conservation commission employs 100 officers to patrol southeastern Florida, a seven-county area roughly the size of El Salvador. These officers have time to conduct only a handful of stings a year while also handling boating safety, cracking down on illegal fishing, and patrolling the backcountry for off-season hunting. In any week, they may target illegal snook sales, the trade of eagle feathers, and the sale of endangered animals' skulls.
When they manage a turtle-egg-poaching arrest, usually once or twice a season, officers complain that state law allows them to charge suspects only with a misdemeanor. In the rare event that an agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is available, authorities can accuse poachers of violating the Endangered Species Act. a charge that carries a maximum five-year sentence.
But the federal government has only ten wildlife agents in Florida, and they are too overburdened to take on most turtle-egg-poaching cases, says Mike Elkins, the assistant special agent in charge at the wildlife service's Atlanta office. Typically, federal agents won't take over unless the case involves commercial trade. Then those agents must attract the attention of federal prosecutors, who are busy these days with terrorism, political corruption, and the drug trade. "These endangered-species cases are more difficult to prove than your typical bank robbery, so the U.S. attorneys are more likely to say they haven't got time," Elkins says. "We have to pick and choose which cases to bring to them."