ARIZONA - March 27 - Conservation and health groups are seeking to end unsustainable commercial harvest of freshwater turtles in four southern states and to stop the export of contaminated turtles to international food markets. The Center for Biological Diversity today filed emergency petitions with the states of Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas to ban commercial turtle harvesting in public and private waters, to prevent further population declines of native southern turtle populations, and to protect public health. Turtles collected in these states and sold as food are often contaminated with mercury, PCBs, and pesticides.
Wildlife exporters and dealers are commercially harvesting massive and unsustainable numbers of wild freshwater turtles from Oklahoma, Florida, and Georgia, the few southern states that continue to allow unlimited and unregulated take of turtles. Herpetologists have reported drastic reductions in numbers and even the disappearance of many southern map turtle species in Georgia and Florida, especially in the panhandle. Recent surveys by Oklahoma State University show depletions and extinction of freshwater turtles in many Oklahoma streams, and commercial turtle buyers in Oklahoma reported purchasing almost 750,000 wild-caught turtles from 1994 to 1999. Over a quarter million wild-caught adult turtles captured in Texas were exported from Dallas Fort Worth Airport to Asia for human consumption from 2002 to 2005.
“Unregulated commercial trappers are capturing appalling numbers of freshwater turtles in southern states, including rare map turtle species that are so depleted they may need protection under the Endangered Species Act,“ said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. ”Collectors could legally harvest every non-protected turtle that exists in the wild under the inadequate regulations that currently exist in Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma. These turtles are an important part of aquatic ecosystems and should not be allowed to be wiped out.”
Most wild turtles harvested in the southern United States are exported to supply food markets in Asia, primarily China, which has depleted or driven most of its native freshwater turtles to extinction in the wild. Numerous southeastern turtles are sold to Asian seafood markets in the United States as well. Many of these turtles are harvested from streams under state and federal fish advisories and bans that caution against and prohibit human consumption, due to aquatic contaminants that are carcinogenic or harmful to humans such as DDT, PCBs, pesticides, mercury and other heavy metals. Turtles live longer and bioaccumulate considerably greater amounts of aquatic contaminants than fish, particularly snapping and softshell turtles that burrow in contaminated sediments.
“Hundreds of thousands of wild-caught turtles are sold locally as food or exported to international food markets from southern states each year, many contaminated with dangerous levels of mercury, PCBs, and pesticides,” said Miller. “The potential health implications are staggering.”
Because freshwater turtles are long lived (some may reach 150 years of age), breed late in life, and have low reproductive and survival rates, they are highly sensitive to over-harvest. Stable turtle populations are dependent on sufficient long lived breeding adults to offset natural mortality and human impacts. Removal of just two adult turtles from a wild population could halve that population in as few as 50 years, since for each adult turtle removed, the reproductive potential of that animal is eliminated over a breeding life that may exceed 50 years. Commercial collecting of wild turtles intensifies the effects of water pollution, road mortality, incidental take from fishery devices, and habitat loss, which are already contributing to turtle declines. Scientists warn that freshwater turtles can not sustain any significant level of harvest from the wild without leading to population crashes.
Adult turtles are also harvested from the wild to breed hatchlings in captivity for the international pet trade. Turtle dealers solicit huge numbers of wild turtles from American sources on the internet. A single dealer can employ a virtual army of hundreds of interstate turtle collectors to conduct unlimited turtle harvest in states where commercial harvest is still legal.
Oklahoma , Florida, and Georgia continue to allow unlimited commercial take of all sizes and ages of most species of turtles, using an unlimited quantity of hoopnets and box traps in public and private waters. In these states, many state and federally protected freshwater turtles are incidentally harvested and sold since turtle traps do not distinguish the species captured, and collectors often misidentify protected species captured in traps that appear similar to non-protected turtles. Hoopnets and box traps also capture, maim, kill, and drown protected turtle species, non-target fish, mammals, and migratory birds, and endangered species such as the federally threatened American alligator.
State wildlife agencies in Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Alabama have prohibited commercial take of freshwater turtles from the wild. Wildlife biologists from states with bans have advised neighboring states to also ban harvest, since wildlife traffickers illegally collect turtles in states where they are protected and claim they were collected in states where harvest is still legal. Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, and Georgia do not survey to determine densities of turtle populations nor require commercial collectors to report the quantity and species of turtles harvested from the wild.
In 2007 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to end commercial harvest of turtles in public waters but continued to allow unlimited harvest of some native turtle species from streams and lakes on private lands. An emergency petition was submitted today to the Texas Department of Health to ban all commercial turtle harvest in Texas, due to significant public health risk from consumption of contaminated turtles.
Because of their brilliant topographical patterns and colorations, all 12 species of southern map turtles are highly sought after by the international pet trade despite being protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Some map turtle species fetch more than $150 per adult on commercial internet websites. Map turtles are drainage specific: each watershed that drains into the Gulf of Mexico produces a brilliant, unique geophysical coloration and pattern on the map turtles’ shell and skin. Many map turtles in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia warrant federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, and two species that occur in Mississippi are already listed under the Act due to overcollection for the pet trade: the yellow blotched map turtle and ringed map turtle.
Also signing onto today’s petition are the St. John’s Riverkeeper (FL), Satilla Riverkeeper (GA), Altamaha Riverkeeper (GA), Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club (TX), Pineywoods Group of the Sierra Club (TX), and the Center for Food Safety.
The petitions and background information on the commercial harvest of freshwater turtles can be found on the Center for Biological Diversity Web site at:
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 40,000 members dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.