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For Immediate Release, June 17, 2009


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:

The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with 220,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org

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