Would-be turtle savior faces felony
By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Peter Daniel Alberdi was on a Charlotte County beach last July when he saw what he thought was a potential massacre.
Sea birds were picking off tiny loggerhead turtles as they scampered from their nest toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Alberdi, an environmental lawyer with a degree in marine biology, decided to give them a hand. He picked them up and carried them to the water's edge.
For his trouble, Alberdi on Thursday was charged with a felony that carries a possible five-year prison sentence.
"What he was trying to do was save them from certain death," said attorney William Taylor, who works with Alberdi at the Tampa firm of Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen. "It seems outrageous to charge him for that."
Officials at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission see things differently.
Alberdi didn't just carry the turtles to the ocean, they say. At least one witness says he uncovered them from their nest before they were ready to make their dash for the water. Officials say Alberdi also appeared to crack open several of the eggs to free some of the remaining turtles.
Such actions interfere with the turtles' natural processes and are violations of well-posted laws, officials say.
"Here's an educated man who probably believed he was doing right," said Gary Morse, a commission spokesman. "But the laws are there to keep people from doing just what he did."
Alberdi, 43, of Tampa, discovered the nest during a daytime visit to Little Gasparilla Island, off the coast between Port Charlotte and Fort Myers. The area is known as a loggerhead turtle nesting ground.
Adult females lay eggs about every two or three years, usually returning to the same beach each time. They lay about 100 eggs in each dug out nest, cover them in sand and waddle back to the safer confines of the gulf.
The eggs remain buried until the turtles hatch. They work as a team to dig themselves out. A depression in the sand often forms as they go about their work. Most often, they wait until the dark of night to make an appearance.
Then they charge for the water like an army unit of three-inch long, four-legged reptiles, with dark flippers and ochre underbellies. Along the way they dodge crabs, raccoons and some birds that hunt at night.
They can live for many decades and grow to 5 feet long. As adults, they weigh an average of 350 pounds. They get their name from their large, block-shaped heads.
The turtles are a threatened species that are protected by both state and federal laws. Without a permit, it is illegal in Florida to disturb a loggerhead turtle nest. Signs are posted on many beaches where the turtles lay their eggs during the April to September nesting season.
A volunteer who watches turtle nests in the Gasparilla area told authorities he first discovered the disturbed nest when he saw Alberdi and another man standing over it. The volunteer said Alberdi admitted knowing about the law and said he had a degree in marine biology.
Alberdi told the volunteer that he had discovered a depressed nest that was about to hatch and dug out the baby turtles, according to a report from the Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Biologists have long recommended that beachgoers avoid digging out loggerhead turtles. It might seem like a good thing to do, but the turtles know how to dig themselves out and won't do so until almost all of them are ready to go, they say.
If some of them are dug out prematurely, the others might not be able to get out later. Also, some biologist believe the process allows the turtles to imprint their nesting surroundings so they know where to return when it is their time to lay eggs.
After a five-month investigation, Alberdi was charged with one count of killing or wounding a threatened species. The maximum sentence includes five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, though a first-time offender would likely get a significantly lesser sentence if convicted.
Alberdi declined to comment except to say that some of the statements made in the commission's report were inaccurate. Alberdi has no previous criminal record in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Taylor, his lawyer, said Alberdi will "vigorously" fight the charge. He was simply moving the turtles to the water to help them avoid the birds, Taylor said.
The number of loggerhead turtle nests have fallen over the last few years in Florida, generally regarded as one of the world's top two nesting grounds, along with the Middle Eastern country of Oman.
The specific reasons for the decline remain elusive, though coastal development, pollution, poaching and fishing nets could be culprits.
Human interaction can put extra stress on the turtles and also confuse them as to their mission, said Morse, the wildlife commission spokesman.
"We are not here to stop anyone from enjoying the beach or watching the wildlife," he said. "But we want to keep people from messing with Mother Nature regardless of their intention."
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From the Times state desk
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