Wild Turtles Containing Mercury and Pesticides Sold as Food
TUCSON, Arizona, March 30, 2008 (ENS) - Turtles collected in four southern states and sold as food are often contaminated with mercury, pesticides andpolychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, according to a coalition of conservation and health groups seeking to stop the export of contaminated turtles to international food markets.

The Center for Biological Diversity Thursday 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. These are among the few southern states that continue to allow unlimited and unregulated take of turtles.

"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, based in Tucson.

"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," Miller said. "These turtles are an important part of aquatic ecosystems and should not be allowed to be wiped out."

Common map turtle emerges from its shell. (Photo by Dan Nedrelo courtesy Wisconsin DNR)

Herpetologists have reported drastic reductions in numbers and 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, the petition claims.

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 Thursday to the Texas Department of Health to ban all commercial turtle harvest in Texas, due to public health risk from consumption of contaminated turtles.

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, the Center for Biological Diversity points out.

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, Miller says.

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 large numbers of wild turtles from American sources on the Internet.

Miller says 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.

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.

Also signing onto the petition are the St. John's Riverkeeper of Florida, Satilla Riverkeeper and Altamaha Riverkeeper of Georgia, the Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Lone Star Chapter and the Pineywoods Group of the Sierra Club of Texas, and the national Center for Food Safety.

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