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Why was a Florida woman arrested for riding a sea turtle?

A Melbourne woman's arrest raises the bigger question of sea turtle protection on the Florida coast. 

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Andre, a sea turtle weighing close to 200 lbs., crawls into the Atlantic Ocean at the Loggerhead Marine Life Center, in Juno Beach, Florida, in this August 3, 2011, file photo. The number of endangered green sea turtle nests built in an important Florida refuge is making an impressive comeback 37 years after the reptile was declared in danger of extinction, experts said on September 1, 2015.

Manuel Rueda/Reuters/File

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After photos of Stephanie Moore, 20, riding a sea turtle went viral, Melbourne police her Saturday with molestation of a marine turtle. 

Ms. Moore has been wanted on a felony warrant since July for violating the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission rule prohibiting the “possession, disturbance, mutilation, destruction, selling, transference, molestation and harassment of marine turtles, nests or eggs.” According to Fox News, after Moore and a friend posted the photos to Facebook, several complaints were filed to the Commission who then opened up an investigation.

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When local police responded to a disturbance Saturday night, they identified Moore as a wanted felon. Melbourne law enforcement then arrested Moore and booked her in Brevard County Jail where she is being held on a $2,000 bond.

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I think it’s abusive. I think its criminal,” Christine Crowe, a fellow Melbourne resident, told News 13.

Some experts insist that Moore’s Snapchat photos warrant the outrage.

“It is important that sea turtles are never disturbed during nesting,” explains the Sea Turtle Conservation on their website, the world’s oldest sea turtle research group based in Florida. “A sea turtle is least likely to abandon nesting when she is laying her eggs, but some turtles will abort the process if they are harassed or feel they are in danger.”  

A successful reproductive process is important for these turtles, as they are a protected species under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 and Florida’s Marine Turtle Protection Act.

Because sea turtles are aquatic, they already struggle with their own weight when they come ashore to lay their eggs, Bay News 9 reported in July. Sitting on a turtle as Moore did not only limits its mobility, but can also cause damage to its ribs or sternum.  

Melbourne is part of Florida’s east-central coast, where 90 percent of the sea turtle population calls home. This specific 20-mile stretch of beach “is home to the most important sea turtle nesting habitat in the United States,” adds the Sea Turtle Conservation. 

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Although many Floridians might agree that riding sea turtles hurts these endangered species, they often unknowingly participate in a number of less obvious, but more common, human interferences.

Beachfront lighting often deters sea turtles from coming ashore to nest, so the US Fish and Wildlife’s North Florida Ecological Services Office recommends closing blinds in oceanfront rooms, redirecting beachfront lighting and using natural vision on the beach instead of flashlights.

Experts also recommend removing recreational equipment such as chairs or umbrellas at night, properly discarding all trash and avoiding campfires on the beach. All of these obstacles can disorient a hatchlings’ long journey from the nest in the sand to the water.

David Hochberg, chairman of the nearby Sea Turtle Preservation Society, says law enforcement is key, and Moore’s case should stand as an example. “If something is not done, that sends out the wrong message that, ‘Even though these laws are in place, nothing is going to happen to me if I break them. So, what’s to stop me from doing it?” Mr. Hochberg told News 13.