End Unsustainable Commercial Harvest of Wild Turtles

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jeff Miller, (510) 499-9185

End Unsustainable Commercial Harvest of Wild Turtles

Conservation and Health Groups Petition Eight Southern and Midwestern States to End Unsustainable Commercial Harvest of Wild Turtles

TUSCON, Ariz - The Center for Biological
Diversity and two dozen other conservation and health groups today filed
emergency petitions with eight Midwestern and southern states, seeking to
end unsustainable commercial harvest of freshwater turtles. The coalition
submitted administrative petitions to state wildlife and health agencies in
Arkansas , Iowa,
Kentucky, Louisiana,
Missouri, Ohio,
South Carolina, and Tennessee, asking for a ban on
commercial harvest of freshwater turtles in all public and private waters.
The commercial-harvest regulations are needed to prevent further depletions
of native turtle populations and to protect public health. Freshwater
turtles collected in these states and sold domestically as food or exported
to international food markets are often contaminated with mercury, PCBs,
and pesticides.

“Unregulated
wildlife dealers are mining southern and midwestern streams for turtles for
the export trade, in a frenzy reminiscent of the gold rush,” said
Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological
Diversity. “Commercial collectors could harvest every non-protected
turtle that exists in the wild under the inadequate regulations that
currently exist in these states. Turtles are an important part of aquatic
ecosystems, and this unsustainable trade needs to be stopped.”

Wildlife
exporters and dealers are commercially harvesting massive and unsustainable
numbers of wild freshwater turtles from southern and midwestern states that
continue to allow unlimited and unregulated take of turtles. The few turtle
surveys that have been conducted in southern and midwestern states show
depletions and extinction of freshwater turtles in many streams.
Herpetologists have reported drastic reductions in numbers and even the
disappearance of many southern map turtle species.

Harvests
and exports of wild turtles caught in the United States have skyrocketed.
Almost 200,000 wild turtles are trapped each year in Arkansas; one
collector alone takes more than 300 snapping turtles each year in Kentucky
for the pet trade; a single collector took 220 adult snapping turtles from
a single river in Louisiana in one year; another pet dealer buys 8,000 to
10,000 pounds per year of live wild adult snappers from trappers in
Louisiana; and a collector in Tennessee took more than 4,000 pounds of
common snapping turtles from a single reservoir in 2007. Commercial turtle
buyers in Oklahoma
reported purchasing almost 750,000 wild-caught turtles from 1994 to 1999.
More than a quarter million wild-caught adult turtles captured in Texas were exported from Dallas
Fort Worth Airport
alone to Asia for human consumption from
2002 to 2005.

The

coalition has now submitted regulatory petitions to every remaining
state in the United States that has unrestricted commercial harvest or
inadequate harvest regulations for freshwater turtles. In 2008 the
Center and allied groups petitioned Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, and
Texas to ban commercial harvest of all native freshwater turtles in
those states. The petitions trigger a public rulemaking process in each
state. Texas has since prohibited commercial harvest from public
waters, but continues to allow unlimited harvest of some native turtle
species from streams and lakes on private lands. Oklahoma enacted a
three-year moratorium on commercial harvest of turtles from public
waters while studying the status of its wild turtle populations, the
effects of commercial harvest, and the potential contamination of
turtles sold as food. Florida imposed a temporary, 20 turtle-a-day
limit for commercial fishermen while it reviews harvest regulations.
The Georgia legislature is currently considering a bill on restrictions
to turtle harvest, based on recommendations by the Georgia Department
of Natural Resources.

The South Carolina state legislature is currently
considering a turtle harvest bill in the House, but it would allow
collectors to harvest up to 10 turtles at a time, with a maximum of 20
turtles per year – which would create an avenue for
illegal export of turtles from South
Carolina. A bill that would prohibit the sale,
barter, or trade of turtles is currently being considered by a subcommittee
in the Iowa
legislature.

The
petitioning groups are the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for
North American Herpetology, Center for Reptile and Amphibian Conservation
and Management, Center for Food Safety, Audubon Society of Central Arkansas
(AR), St. John’s Riverkeeper (FL), Satilla Riverkeeper (GA), Altamaha
Riverkeeper (GA), Tallgrass Prairie Audubon Society (IA), Sierra Club,
Iowa Chapter (IA), Arkansas River Coalition (KS), Kentucky Heartwood
(KY), Gulf Restoration Network (LA), Ozark Rivers Chapter of the National
Audubon Society (MO), Miami Valley Audubon Society (OH), Western Cuyahoga
Audubon Society (OH), Oklahoma Chapter Sierra Club (OK), Charleston Chapter
Audubon Society (SC), Congaree Riverkeeper (SC), Tennessee Chapter Sierra
Club (TN), Tennessee Herpetological Society (TN), Tennessee Scenic Rivers
Association (TN), Save The Cumberland (TN), Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club
(TX), and Pineywoods Group Sierra Club (TX).

Most
wild turtles harvested in the United States
are exported to supply food markets in Asia, primarily China, where turtle consumption
rates have soared and as a result, most native freshwater turtles have been
driven to extinction in the wild. Importers are now turning to the United States
to meet demand. 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 these states each year, many contaminated
with dangerous levels of mercury, PCBs, and pesticides,” said Miller.
“This food trade is completely unregulated, so 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
vulnerable to overharvest. Removing even a few adults from a stream can
have a population effect lasting for decades, since each adult turtle
removed eliminates the reproductive potential over a breeding life that may
exceed 50 years. Stable turtle populations are dependent on sufficient long
lived breeding adults to offset natural mortality and human impacts.
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, particularly map turtles and snapping 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.

Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana,
Missouri, Ohio,
South Carolina, and Tennessee continue to allow unlimited
commercial take of all sizes and ages of most species of native turtles,
using unlimited quantities of lethal hoopnets and box traps in public and
private waters. Although some of these states protect rarer turtle species,
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
are lethal devices that also capture, maim, kill, and drown protected
turtle species, non-target fish, mammals, and migratory birds, and in some
areas, endangered species such as the federally threatened American
alligator.

State
wildlife agencies in Mississippi, North Carolina, and Alabama have prohibited commercial take
of wild freshwater turtles. North
Carolina closed all commercial harvest of aquatic
turtles after compiling one years worth of harvest data which showed the
removal of 28,000 wild caught turtles. 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. Most
states 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. Tennessee
is one of the only states that has conducted bioaccumulation analyses of
toxins in freshwater turtles, with disturbing results.

The
petitions and background information on the commercial harvest of
freshwater turtles can be found on the Center for Biological Diversity Web
site at:
www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/southern_and_midwestern_freshwater_turtles/index.html.

The
Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit
conservation organization with 200,000 members and online activists
dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

State Turtle Harvest Information

Arkansas

Arkansas law allows turtle collectors to
deploy an unlimited number of box traps and hoopnets to harvest freshwater
turtles. Of the 16 species of turtles that occur in Arkansas, 11 aquatic species are
commercially harvested. Box turtles (genus Terrapene),
alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys
temminckii), and chicken turtles (Deirochelys reticularia) are prohibited from harvest or
restricted possession in Arkansas.
The dominant commercial species in Arkansas
are the red-eared slider (Trachemys
scripta), which comprised 80% of total harvest, spiny softshell
(Apalone spinifera), and
common snapping turtle (Chelydra
serpentina). Map turtles are harvested in Arkansas for the pet trade. Mandatory
reporting of turtle harvests in Arkansas
by collectors only began in 2004. From 2004-2006, 589,382 aquatic turtles
were reported harvested by commercial collectors in Arkansas, an average of 196,460 turtles
per year. Turtles are harvested primarily from the Mississippi Delta
ecoregion. Commercial dealers are attempting to open additional waters in Arkansas to the use
of hoop nets, seeking to exploit previously unharvested populations as
demand goes up due to other state’s turtle harvest restrictions. The
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission does not monitor health or population
trends of wild turtle populations.

Florida

In
September 2008, Florida
imposed a temporary, 20 turtle-a-day limit for commercial fishermen while
it reviews harvest regulations. The interim rules continue to allow turtle
harvest using hoopnets and inexplicably allow the possession of several
imperiled Florida turtle species such as alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminkcii), Escambia map
turtle (Graptemys escambia)
and Barbour’s map turtle (Graptemys
barbouri). Herpetologists report drastic population depletions
and even extirpations of most southern map turtle species, in Florida, especially
in the panhandle. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is
undertaking a year-long study of freshwater turtles. Florida already prohibits harvest of
river cooters, soft-shell turtles and their eggs during the early summer,
which is nesting season. Florida
in the past has not monitored the health or population trends of wild
turtle populations, kept track of numbers of turtles harvested each year,
or required commercial harvesters to report their take. The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service reports 3,000 pounds of freshwater turtles are exported
from Miami
per week, and one Broward seafood firm purchases about 15,000 pounds of
native softshells weekly. Florida Governor Charlie Crist has publicly supported
a complete ban on wild turtle harvest.

Georgia

The Georgia
legislature is currently considering a bill on restrictions to turtle
harvest, based on recommendations by the Georgia Department of Natural
Resources. Harvest is currently unregulated for 13 out of 14 native
freshwater turtle species in Georgia. Except for the Chattahoochee River
between Georgia and Alabama, the Georgia
Department of Natural Resources allows unlimited commercial harvest of
freshwater turtles using an unlimited quantity of hoopnets. Georgia
does not require collectors to report the quantity, species, harvest locale
or destination of captured turtles. Georgia protects the Bog turtle
(Glyptemys muhlenbergii ) as
Endangered and the Barbour’s map turtle (Graptemys barbouri) and alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) as Threatened.
Numerous herpetologists have reported drastic population depletions and
even extirpation of most southern map turtle species from Georgia.

Iowa

Iowa allows commercial turtle collectors
to legally take an unlimited number of common snapping turtles, softshell
turtles and painted turtles with a commercial turtle license using an
unlimited number of hoopnets and boxtraps. Nonresident dealers can only
take these three species from the Missouri,
Mississippi and Bog Sioux
Rivers. Iowa law prohibits
the harvest of rare turtle species including alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temmickii), chicken
turtles (Deirochelys reticularia)
and Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea
blandingii). However, these species overlap in range with
non-protected turtles in Iowa
and are caught in baited traps set by commercial collectors. Trappers often
can not distinguish alligator snappers from common snappers and coin both
species simply as “snappers” or “loggerheads.” To
the untrained eye chicken turtles are strikingly similar in appearance to
red eared sliders and river cooters. Collectors who can distinguish these
species and who realize their high value for the international pet trade
may purposely harvest and portray them as common snappers and red eared
sliders and sell these to dealers in states where their commerce is legal.
The largest known Midwest state dealer of common snapping turtles has
operated in Iowa
for more than thirty years. Iowa does not
track the amount of turtles harvested from Iowa waters and the Iowa Department of
Natural Resources does not monitor health or population trends of wild
turtle populations. A bill that would prohibit the sale, barter, or trade
of turtles is currently being considered by a subcommittee in the Iowa legislature.

Kentucky

Kentucky law allows turtle collectors to
deploy an unlimited number of box traps and hoopnets to harvest common
snapping and softshell turtles. Kentucky
does not have data on freshwater turtle harvest levels. A commercial turtle
operation is known to occur on Reelfoot
Lake in western Kentucky;
and a single collector of more than thirty years captures common snapping
turtles from private stock ponds in intensive agricultural areas in western
Kentucky,
and can capture over 330 turtles in one year. Kentucky law prohibits the harvest of
rare turtle species including alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temmickii) and chicken
turtles (Deirochelys reticularia).
However, these species overlap in range with non-protected turtles in Kentucky and are
caught in baited traps set by commercial collectors. Trappers often can not
distinguish alligator snappers from common snappers and coin both species
simply as “loggerheads.” To the untrained eye chicken turtles
are strikingly similar in appearance to red eared sliders and river
cooters. Collectors who can distinguish these species and who realize their
high value for the international pet trade may purposely harvest and
portray them as common snappers and red eared sliders and sell these to
dealers in states where their commerce is legal. Kentucky Fish and Game
Department does not monitor health or population trends of wild turtle
populations.

Louisiana

Louisiana law allows unlimited commercial
harvest of 24 native freshwater turtle species and allows turtle collectors
to deploy an unlimited number of box traps and hoopnets to harvest
freshwater turtles. Louisiana
prohibits harvest of two federally protected map turtle species (Graptemys oculifera and G. flavimaculata). However, illegal
harvest of these two endangered map turtles occurs to meet the demands of a
black market turtle trade.
Until 2004, Louisiana
was the last state that allowed unlimited commercial harvest of alligator
snapping turtles. Harvest of wild adult alligator snappers in Louisiana
intensified in the mid 1990s through 2004 to facilitate trophy adult males
for the zoo and aquarium exhibit industry and to breed hatchlings for the
international pet trade. For example, in 2000 an estimated 220 adult snappers
were taken from the Ouachita River by a single collector to breed and sell
hatchlings to buyers abroad; and another pet dealer from Missouri
estimated buying 8,000-10,000 pounds per year live weight of adult snappers
from trappers in Louisiana.
Due to harvest pressures, Louisiana
prohibited unlimited commercial harvest of alligator snapping turtles in
2004, but allows “recreational take” of one alligator snapping
turtle per day.

Although
Louisiana
is the heart of the turtle industry and conservation groups and
herpetologists have long recommended banning all turtle harvest, collectors
are not required to report the quantity of turtles captured, species,
harvest locale, or destination of captured turtles. Louisiana Department of
Wildlife and Fisheries statewide population surveys from 1996 to 2001 show
severely depleted populations and extirpations of alligator snapping
turtles from areas that once supported substantial populations, consistent
with surveys by herpetologists in 1994, 1988, and 2002. The depletions of
alligator snapping turtles are bioindicators of population levels and
diversity of other commercially sought turtle species (common snapper,
softshell, red ear, cooter and map turtles) in the surveyed areas. Louisiana trappers also report population depletions
and because of this Louisiana turtle
dealers are soliciting commercial numbers of turtles as far away as South Carolina.

Missouri

Missouri law allows turtle collectors to
deploy an unlimited number of box traps and hoopnets to harvest freshwater
turtles. Collectors may harvest an unlimited number of common snapping
turtles and spiny and smooth softshell turtles in three major watersheds:
the Missouri River, Mississippi River, and St. Francis
River. However, collectors are not required to report the
date, species or quantity of turtles captured or stream and county where
harvest occurred. Missouri
law prohibits the harvest of rare turtle species including alligator
snapping turtles (Macrochelys temmickii),
and chicken turtles (Deirochelys
reticularia). However, these species overlap in range with
non-protected turtles in Missouri
and are caught in baited traps set by commercial collectors. Trappers often
can not distinguish alligator snappers from common snappers and coin both
species simply as “loggerheads.” To the untrained eye chicken
turtles are strikingly similar in appearance to red eared sliders and river
cooters. Collectors who can distinguish these species and who realize their
high value for the international pet trade may purposely harvest and
portray them as common snappers and red eared sliders and sell these to
dealers in states where their commerce is legal. Alligator snapping turtle
population surveys from the boot heel of Missouri show depleted and extirpated
population, which may indicate relatively low densities of other turtle
species. Studies funded by the Missouri Department of Conservation describe
grave concern for depleted turtle populations resulting from incidental
mortality from commercial fishing nets that are commonly deployed in Missouri.

Ohio

Ohio
law allows turtle collectors to deploy an unlimited number of box traps and
hoopnets to harvest freshwater turtles, and allows unlimited commercial
harvest of common snapping turtles (Chelydraserpentina),
smooth softshell turtles (Apalone
spinifera) and spiny softshell turtles (Apalone mutica). Ohio does not require collectors to
report the number or species of turtles taken from the wild. Ohio prohibits the
harvest of rare turtle species including wood turtles (Clemmys insculpta), chicken turtles (Deirochelys reticularia), spotted
turtles (Clemmys guttata) and
Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea
blandingii). However, these species overlap in range with
snapping turtles and softshell turtles are caught in baited traps set by
commercial collectors. Trappers often do not distinguish common snappers
from chicken, spotted or Blanding’s turtles and coin all species
simply as “snappers” or “stripernecks.” To the
untrained eye chicken turtles are strikingly similar in appearance to red
eared sliders and river cooters. Collectors who can distinguish these
species and who realize their high value for the international pet trade
may purposely harvest and portray them as common snappers and sell these to
dealers in states where their commerce is legal. The Ohio Department of
Natural Resources does not monitor health or population trends of wild
turtle populations.

Oklahoma

In
May 2008 the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission enacted a three-year
moratorium on commercial harvest of turtles from all public waters, but
allowed continued harvest in private waters. During the moratorium, the
Department of Wildlife Conservation will study the status of Oklahoma’s
wild turtle populations, the effects of commercial harvest, and the potential
contamination of turtles sold as food with heavy metals and pesticides. The
Commission also requested Department of Wildlife Conservation staff to
further explore the potential need to close all waters, including private
waters, to harvest. Recent surveys by Oklahoma
State University
show depletions and extinction of freshwater turtles in many Oklahoma streams.
Commercial turtle buyers in Oklahoma
reported purchasing almost 750,000 wild-caught turtles from 1994 to 1999.
The Commission resolution noted that 92 commercial turtle harvesters
reported trapping 63,814 wild turtles in Oklahoma in 2007.

South
Carolina

South Carolina law allows turtle collectors to
deploy an unlimited number of box traps and hoopnets to harvest freshwater turtles,
and allows unlimited harvest of common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) from streams
draining into the Atlantic Ocean. South Carolina does
not require collectors to report the quantity of turtles harvested. South Carolina
prohibits the harvest of rare turtle species including chicken turtles (Deirochelys reticularia), spotted
turtles (Clemmys guttata) and
federally protected bog turtles (Glyptemys
muhlenbergii). However, the chicken and spotted turtles overlap
in range with snapping turtles in South Carolina
and streams draining into the Atlantic and
are caught in baited traps set by commercial collectors. Trappers often do
not distinguish common snappers from chicken and spotted turtles and coin
both species simply as “snappers” or “stripernecks.”
To the untrained eye chicken turtles are strikingly similar in appearance
to red eared sliders and river cooters. Collectors who can distinguish
these species and who realize their high value for the international pet
trade may purposely harvest and portray them as common snappers and red
eared sliders and sell these to dealers in states where their commerce is
legal. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources does not monitor
health or population trends of wild turtle populations. The South Carolina state legislature is currently
considering a turtle harvest bill in the House, but it would allow
collectors to harvest up to 10 turtles at a time, with a maximum of 20
turtles per year – which would create an avenue for
illegal export of turtles from South
Carolina.

Tennessee

In
the mid 1990s the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency prohibited commercial
harvest of most turtle species throughout the majority of the state, after
law enforcement reported encountering resident and nonresident turtle collectors
in Tennessee who worked for large scale
turtle export turtle dealers in Louisiana
and Arkansas.
However unlimited harvest is still allowed for eleven turtle species from
three Tennessee counties along the
Mississippi River surrounding Reelfoot
Lake in northwest Tennessee. In Lake, Obion, and Dyer counties snapping turtles, map
turtles, soft-shell turtles, river cooters, western painted turtles,
red-eared sliders, common mud turtles, and common musk turtles may continue
to be taken commercially in unlimited quantities. Collectors may also
harvest an unlimited number of common snapping turtles over 12 inches from
any water that is open to commercial harvest. Tennessee law allows turtle collectors
to deploy an unlimited number of box traps and hoopnets to harvest
freshwater turtles. Commercial harvesters must report their monthly
harvest. Tennessee
prohibits the harvest of rare turtle species including alligator snapping
turtles (Macrochelys temmickii)
and chicken turtles (Deirochelys
reticularia). However, these species overlap in range with
non-protected turtles in Tennessee
and are caught in baited traps set by commercial collectors. Trappers often
can not distinguish alligator snappers from common snappers and coin both
species simply as “loggerheads.” To the untrained eye chicken
turtles are strikingly similar in appearance to red eared sliders and river
cooters. Collectors who can distinguish these species and who realize their
high value for the international pet trade may purposely harvest and portray
them as common snappers and red eared sliders and sell these to dealers in
states where their commerce is legal.

Tennessee is one of the only states in the
nation that has conducted bioaccumulation analyses of snapping turtles
muscle tissue, fat tissue and eggs. Sample results from the 1990s showed
high levels of pesticides, PCBs, heavy metals and mercury in snapping
turtles beyond permissible FDA guideline thresholds that were safe for
consumption. This study was published in 1997, yet it remains legal in Tennessee to
commercially harvest snapping turtles from known contaminated areas to be
sold as food. Since 2007, fear of harvest moratoriums in neighboring states
where commercial harvest is legal may have intensified harvest pressure in Tennessee,
especially in streams that are not known to have been trapped. For example,
in 2007 TWRA law enforcement engaged a nonresident collector with more than
4,000 pounds of common snapping turtle harvested from Old Hickory Reservoir
in Davidson County. The turtles were to be sold
to an exporter in an undisclosed state.

Texas

In
2007 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to end
commercial harvest of turtles in public waters in Texas, but continued to allow unlimited
harvest of some native turtle species from streams and lakes on private
lands. A petition was submitted in 2008 to the Texas Department of Health
to ban all commercial turtle harvest in Texas, including on private lands, due
to significant public-health risk from consumption of contaminated turtles.
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. A major Texas turtle dealer employs
an interstate network of 450 collectors that harvest turtles from Texas and other
southern states where unlimited harvest is allowed or harvest is
inadequately regulated.

###

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

Share This Article

More in: