Not only are the turtles vanishing into extinction, but consumers are eating meat from turtles caught in streams contaminated with mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, and pesticides, the petitioners warn.
The coalition of two dozen groups 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 groups say wildlife exporters and dealers are harvesting massive and unsustainable numbers of wild freshwater turtles from southern and midwestern states that continue to allow unlimited and unregulated take of turtles.
"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," he said. "Turtles are an important part of aquatic ecosystems, and this unsustainable trade needs to be stopped."
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.
The coalition says that harvests and exports of wild turtles caught in the United States have "skyrocketed" and regulations are needed to prevent further depletions of native turtle populations and to protect public health.
Almost 200,000 wild turtles are trapped each year in Arkansas, the coalition said today.
"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, " the coalition said in a statement today.
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.
Because freshwater turtles can live as long as 150 years, breed late in life, and have low reproductive and survival rates, they are 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, the conservationists point out.
This alligator snapping turtle weighs about 45 pounds. (Photo by L.A. Dawson)
Effective June 14, 2006, the United States listed 13 native freshwater turtle species in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - the alligator snapping turtle and all 12 species of map turtle. Listed as Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the alligator snapping turtle, Macrochelys temminckii, is North America's largest freshwater turtle and may reach a size of up to 250 pounds.
Once a species is listed under CITES, any international trade in the species, either as live specimens or parts or products, farmed or wild-caught, must be accompanied by a valid CITES permit or certificate. But this rule does not apply to trade within the United States.
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. This would create an avenue for illegal export of turtles from South Carolina, the coalition says.
A bill that would prohibit the sale, barter, or trade of turtles is currently being considered by a subcommittee in the Iowa legislature.
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 also are sold to Asian seafood markets in the United States.
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 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."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.