Petition to End Unsustainable Commercial Harvest of Wild Turtles

For Immediate ReleaseContact: Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185March 11, 2009Conservation and Health Groups Petition Eight Southern and Midwestern States to End Unsustainable Commercial Harvest of Wild TurtlesTurtles Contaminated With Mercury and Other Toxins Sold as FoodTucson, 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….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 InformationLouisianaLouisiana 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.ArkansasArkansas 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.FloridaIn 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.GeorgiaThe 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.IowaIowa 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.KentuckyKentucky 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.MissouriMissouri 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.OhioOhio 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 (Chelydra serpentina), 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 blandingi). 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.OklahomaIn 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 CarolinaSouth 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.TennesseeIn 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.TexasIn 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 plants and animals. 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. We want those who come after us to inherit a world where the wild is still alive.Jeff MillerConservation AdvocateCenter for Biological Diversity351 California Street, Suite 600San Francisco, CA 94104Phone: (415) 436-9682 x303Fax: (415) 436-9683Web site: www.biologicaldiversity.org