Oct. 19 (UPI) -- The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced the arrest of two Fort Myers men suspected of involvement in a turtle trafficking ring.
The FWC announced the arrests of Michael Boesenberg, 39, and Michael Clemons, 23, in a news conference Friday.
They each face charges of illegally selling thousands of turtles poached from the wild.
"The charges represent the state's largest seizure of turtles in recent history," the FWC said.
Boesenberg allegedly directed turtle trappers to collect the animals "in large numbers," the FWC said, then sold them to a buyer connected to Asian markets. He was charged with dealing in stolen property as an organizer.
Evidence from an investigation showed that turtles were sold for up to $300 each and retailed as much as $10,000 in Asia. Occasionally, sellers traded turtles for marijuana instead of cash.
Boesenberg was also charged with possessing more than 20 grams of cannabis and possessing a controlled substance, THC oil.
Clemons was charged with dealing in stolen property, and the sale and offer of wild turtle.
The undercover investigation began when the FWC received a tip in February 2018. It determined that more than 4,000 turtles were illegally poached and sold on the black market over a six-month period.
The variety of turtles poached included Florida box turtles, Eastern box turtles, striped mud turtles, Florida mud turtles, chicken turtles, Florida softshell turtles, Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtles, spotted turtles and diamondback terrapins, the FWC said.
After a search warrant on Aug. 12, investigators found hundreds of turtles still in the poachers' possession with an estimated black market value of $200,000.
"Over 600 turtles were returned to the wild, two dozen were quarantined and released at a later date, and a handful were retained by a captive wildlife licensee since they were not native to the area," the release stated. "Nearly 300 of the freed turtles are now part of a long-term monitoring project by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation."
Together, the suspects allegedly contributed to the illegal wildlife trade in the United States, which the International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates is worth $19 billion annually.
Though Lee County was hardest hit by the turtle poachers, the suspects allegedly also worked with traffickers across the state and country.
"This sinister and illegal trade threatens the future of many species of North American animals, and as one of the most threatened animal groups on the planet, turtles are at the forefront of our concern," said Craig Stanford, chairman of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Turtoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group in the release.