For Immediate Release, May 5, 2008
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Christopher Jones, petition co-author, (936) 615-3740
Oklahoma Moves to Protect State's Freshwater Turtles
Three-year Moratorium While State Studies Harvest Impacts on
Wild Turtles, Toxic Contamination of Turtles Sold as Food
TUCSON, Ariz.— Responding to a petition by conservation and health groups, the state of Oklahoma today enacted a three-year moratorium on commercial harvest of turtles from public waters. The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to enact the moratorium, recommended by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, which goes into effect immediately. During the moratorium, the state 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.
In March 2008 the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation and health groups, seeking to end unsustainable commercial harvest of freshwater turtles and to stop the export of contaminated turtles to international food markets, filed petitions with the states of Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, and Texas to ban commercial turtle harvesting in all public and private waters. Regulations are needed prevent further population declines of native southern turtle populations and to protect public health. Turtles collected in these states and sold as food are often contaminated with mercury, PCBs, and pesticides.
“We applaud Oklahoma’s efforts to begin to address depletion of Oklahoma’s native turtles,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We urge the state to include private waters in the moratorium since they can produce contaminated turtles unfit for human consumption.”
Wildlife exporters and dealers are commercially harvesting massive and unsustainable numbers of wild freshwater turtles from Oklahoma, Florida, and Georgia, the few southern states that continue to allow unlimited and unregulated take of turtles. 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.
The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission resolution noted that 92 commercial turtle harvesters reported trapping 63,814 wild turtles in Oklahoma last year, that Oklahoma is one of three states currently allowing unregulated commercial harvest of turtles, and that “insufficient data exists to adequately determine the impact of unregulated commercial harvest of native turtle species in Oklahoma.”
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 March to the Texas Department of Health to ban all commercial turtle harvest in Texas, due to significant public-health risk from consumption of contaminated turtles. The states of Florida, Georgia, and Texas have so far not taken any action on the petitions, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is beginning a review of Florida’s rules on taking of non-game species, including freshwater turtles, and will begin a potential rulemaking process to revise the harvest regulations.
“Wild turtles are an important part of aquatic ecosystems and should not be allowed to be wiped out by over-harvest,“ said Miller. “Hundreds of thousands of wild 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 – the potential health implications are staggering.”
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. 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 sensitive to over-harvest. Stable turtle populations are dependent on sufficient long-lived breeding adults to offset natural mortality and human impacts. Removal of just two adult turtles from a wild population could halve that population in as few as 50 years, since for each adult turtle removed, the reproductive potential of that animal is eliminated over a breeding life that may exceed 50 years. 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 recently prohibited commercial take of freshwater turtles from the wild. Wildlife biologists from states with bans have advised neighboring states to also end harvest, since wildlife traffickers illegally collect turtles in states where they are protected and claim they are from states where harvest is still legal. Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, and Georgia do not survey to determine densities of turtle populations nor require commercial collectors to report the both the quantity and species of turtles harvested from the wild.
Groups signing onto the petitions are the Center for Biological Diversity, Oklahoma Chapter of the Sierra Club, St. John’s Riverkeeper and Apalachicola Riverkeeper (FL), Satilla Riverkeeper and Altamaha Riverkeeper (GA), Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and Pineywoods Group of the Sierra Club (TX), and the Center for Food Safety.
The petitions and background information on the commercial harvest of freshwater turtles can be found on the Center for Biological Diversity Web site at:
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 40,000 members dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.