Tennessee Slow, Florida Out Front in Protecting Freshwater Turtles

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Christopher Jones, (936) 615-3740

Tennessee Slow, Florida Out Front in Protecting Freshwater Turtles

Other Southern and Midwestern States Refuse to End Unsustainable Commercial Harvest of Wild Turtles

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Today the Tennessee
Wildlife Resources Commission is considering an emergency rulemaking petition
submitted by health and conservation groups to ban commercial harvest of wild
freshwater turtles from public and private waters throughout the state. The
Commission received the petition in March from the Center for Biological
Diversity, Center for North American
Herpetology, Center for Reptile and Amphibian Conservation and Management,
Center for Food Safety, Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, Tennessee
Herpetological Society, Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, and Save the
Cumberland. Tennessee is not expected to change harvest regulations, but
Florida's wildlife agency will vote today on finalizing a proposal banning most
commercial turtle harvest in private and public waters in
Florida.

Over two dozen conservation and
public-health groups petitioned Tennessee and 11 other southern and midwestern
states in 2008 and 2009 to prohibit commercial turtle harvest - both to protect
dwindling populations of freshwater turtles and to protect human health. Turtles
sold domestically as food or exported to international food markets are often
contaminated with mercury, PCBs, and pesticides.

"The Asian turtle crisis has hit
Tennessee and
other states that have weak harvest regulations, and our native turtles are in
jeopardy," said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for
Biological Diversity. "To supply overseas demand for turtle meat and parts,
commercial harvesters are strip-mining streams of their turtles for the export
trade. This food trade is completely unregulated, and the potential health
implications due to turtles contaminated with carcinogenic toxins are
staggering."

"For more than a decade Tennessee
has known of published contaminant studies from the Tennessee River showing
snapping turtles are contaminated with toxins and dangerous to eat,"  said Chris Jones, a conservation
attorney representing the petitioning groups. "We believe harvest numbers are
much greater than reported since the state does not monitor how many turtles are
harvested commercially. The demand for turtles in Asia is driving massive
exploitation of wild turtles, on a scale comparable to the buffalo slaughters of the
1800s."

Florida is set to ban commercial turtle
harvest in public and private waters. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Commission in 2008 imposed a temporary, 20-turtle-a-day limit for commercial
fishermen while it reviewed harvest regulations. The Commission will vote today
on its proposed ban (which would allow licensed turtle farmers to continue to
take an unlimited quantity of broodstock turtles).

More than 25,000 turtles have been
collected from the wild in Tennessee in the past two years, and the state
recently permitted more commercial trapping of snapping turtles on private
ponds. A report published for the Commission in 2008 evaluated the status of
turtles in Reelfoot Lake, the only
body of water in Tennessee where all freshwater turtle species may be
harvested by legal methods. The report recommended considering eliminating turtle
harvest at the lake. The Commission continues to contemplate whether to
continue to allow unlimited harvest of eight native turtle species from this
lake and snapping turtles statewide. Tennessee is one of the only states that
has conducted bioaccumulation analyses of toxins in freshwater turtles, with
disturbing results.

In response to the petition,
Oklahoma in
2008 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. In 2007, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department prohibited commercial
harvest of turtles from public waters in Texas. But it allowed continued
unlimited harvest of three native turtle species from the state's private
waters. Most of the state wildlife and health agencies petitioned for emergency
rulemaking to protect wild turtles and public health have refused to act.
Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, and South Carolina
have all denied the petition.

The South Carolina legislature passed a turtle
harvest bill in April 2009, the South Carolina Turtle Export Bill, which was
signed by the governor and is now law. The bill makes it unlawful to remove more
than 10 turtles from the wild in South
Carolina at one time and more than 20 turtles in one
year, for nine native species. This is an improvement, but because commercial
harvest is still allowed and will likely not be well monitored, it creates an
avenue for illegal export of turtles from the state. The
Georgia legislature introduced a bill
this year that would have eliminated harvest from public waters and allowed a
commercial harvest of 10 turtles per day from private waters. This bill did not
survive a house vote and will not be reviewed again until 2010. A bill that
would prohibit the sale, barter, or trade of turtles was being considered by a
subcommittee in the Iowa legislature but did not pass. Kentucky's wildlife
agency stated it will monitor commercial harvest of three turtle species and
review existing harvest restrictions to determine if they provide adequate
protection, and the state health department has agreed to test turtles sold as
food for contaminants.

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 for turtle meat and parts, sold as an expensive delicacy and a
traditional Chinese medicine. 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.

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.

State wildlife
agencies in Mississippi, North Carolina, and Alabama have prohibited commercial take of
wild freshwater turtles. Wildlife biologists from states with bans have advised
neighboring states to ban harvest also, 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 or require commercial collectors to report the quantity and species
of turtles harvested from the wild.

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

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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.

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