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Posted by W von Papinešu on January 25, 2003 at 08:30:05:
SUN-HERALD (Charlotte, Florida) 25 January 03 Turtle-saving lawyer speaks out
Alberdi: "I'm tired of being quiet"
Tampa environmental lawyer P. Daniel Alberdi, Jr., recently charged with one count of killing or wounding a threatened species, says he's not guilty.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has investigated Alberdi since last July, when during a family vacation he allegedly disturbed a loggerhead sea turtle nest on Little Gasparilla Island in Charlotte County. The case received state-wide attention.
In an exclusive interview Thursday with the Sun, Alberdi spoke publicly about the incident for the first time:
"I'm just tired of being quiet and watching this go forward," he said. "I just want this all to go away."
According to the FWC, Alberdi was charged with intentionally destroying eggs and disturbing a loggerhead sea turtle nest July 26. The FWC states that in an attempt to aid them (sea turtles), he uncovered and removed hatching turtles and carried them to the water in violation of Florida statute 372.0725, which reads:
"It is unlawful for a person to intentionally kill or wound any fish or wildlife of a species designated by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as endangered, threatened, or of special concern, or to intentionally destroy the eggs or nest of any such fish or wildlife, except as provided for in the rules of the commission. Any person who violates this provision with regard to any endangered or threatened species is guilty of a felony of the third degree, punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine."
A felony arrest warrant was recently issued against Alberdi. In order to avoid trauma to his family or problems at work, he said, he decided to turn himself in.
On Jan. 16, Alberdi turned himself over to authorities in Hillsborough County, where he was booked, fingerprinted, photographed for a mug shot and put into a holding cell in the county jail. Hours later, he bonded out for $1,575. He expects to be arraigned in the next four to six weeks, but hasn't yet hired an attorney.
Much has been published about what allegedly happened, but according to Alberdi, all he did was rescue newly hatched baby turtles from being eaten by a large flock of hungry seagulls.
"It was a hot summer day around noon," he recalled. "I saw all these black things on the beach and immediately realized what they were. Seagulls were lined up ready to eat the baby sea turtles, which had already hatched and were above the nest.
"There was a 100-percent certainty they would die," said Alberdi. "I picked up the turtles in my hands and brought them to the Gulf. I could have tried to chase the gulls away, but they were too fast. I did not kill or wound any of the turtles. The people who reported me did not witness that event. I'm the one who told them I carried the turtles to the water.
"I just wanted to get them past the birds," Alberdi added. "They may have been eaten by snook once they hit the water, but a dead turtle does not imprint."
Alberdi was referring to long-standing research that indicates baby turtles need to imprint on their nest surroundings to energize the internal compass that allows them to return to the nesting area where they successfully hatched.
Scientists are unsure at what point in the hatchling's development beach imprinting occurs, but by carrying the turtles to the water, Alberdi may have interfered with the imprinting process, according to Gary Morse of the FWC Public Information Coordination Office.
"I thought the intention is to make sure more of them survive," said Alberdi. "I did environmental regulatory work for years. You don't hit people over the head with a big log, you educate them and they'll follow through.
"The irony of it all was that in my family, I am the one who would defend these people. I'm the one who has defended them as being good-hearted and now I'm dragged into this."
Hero or villain?
Alberdi described himself as "a biologist first and a lawyer second." The lifelong resident of Tampa graduated with honors from Florida State University in 1981, received a Masters of Science degree in 1990 from the University of South Florida and graduated cum laude from Stetson University College of Law in 2001, when he received the university's Environmental Law Award.
He worked with the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission for more than eight years, dealing with seagrass protection, habitat protection and wetlands regulations.
He has served on the board of the Audubon Society and was appointed to an environmental commission for the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners. He also has worked with the National Estuary Program and Tampa Port Authority.
Alberdi said he has received a lot of support at McFarland, Ferguson & McMullen, the law firm where has worked for the past 1 1/2 years.
"This felony can affect my ability to vote, perform my profession and travel abroad," Alberdi said. "I'm going to pursue this. I did not crack eggs or do anything directly harmful to the turtles. None of those (turtle) eggs were damaged because of me.
"Some of the things I've read about me are absolutely false. Some of the volunteers who monitor nests are very heavy-handed and over-zealous."
Alberdi said he tried unsuccessfully to communicate with the State Attorney's Office about the charges. He said he planned to retain an attorney soon.
"I will not plead guilty," he said. "I don't understand why this is going on, to be quite honest. Anyone who knows me knows this is not what it seems. I have had a lot of people calling me to ask what they can to do help. I don't think the state has all the facts."
Alberdi believes the FMC might be using him to set an example: "Here's an educated person who should know better and is not above the law." He describes as "speculative" reports in the press about depressed nests and egg cracking, emphasizing his concerns with the environment.
"I'm the one who drags up the furniture from the beach," Alberdi said.
"We have no doubt Mr. Alberdi was trying to do good, but there were reasons these laws exist," said Morse. "Often people's compassion is misplaced. He may have done some things that, while he intended not to hurt the turtles, are against the law for good reason.
"I can't speak about the investigation because it concerns evidence we've gathered, but our investigation indicates there were some violations of state law. He knew the law and he chose to disobey it.
"We're not accusing Mr. Alberdi of being an ogre," said Morse, "but the preponderance of evidence suggests we should leave nature to its own course. We want to educate people that nature is best left alone to her own course. That's why there are state and federal laws against what he did. It is our contention that 'help' is not needed, warranted or legal."
Linda Soderquist, principal permit holder on Little Gasparilla Island, reported the number of sea turtle nests were down last year. She did not witness the alleged incident involving Alberdi last July, but heard a report from one of her volunteer monitors, who allegedly heard Alberdi's claims of saving "about 50 turtles."
Soderquist also reported eggshells were left on top of the nest in question and attributed that to Alberdi. Later that night, a raccoon discovered what was left of the nest (unhatched and hatching turtles) and depredated it, which signaled other raccoons to come into the area to dig out other turtle nests.
"We only counted 100 nests in 2002, compared to 133 the year before," said Soderquist. "The percentage of successful hatchlings was also down, as there was serious depredation by raccoons, sand crabs, armadillos and bobcats. "
Depredation is defined as "plunder," but in the sea turtle world means wholesale nest raiding by a predator.
To report violations of marine turtle protection laws call the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).