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Turtle: For some, it’s the other white meat

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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American freshwater turtles are being harvested at an unsustainable rate to feed the voracious appetite for turtle meat in Asia, warns the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona.

Earlier this month, the organization petitioned eight U.S. states (Arkansas , Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee) to ban turtle hunting in all public and private waters. Meanwhile, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has proposed its own ban, and will present a draft of the rules at a Commission meeting next month. The Commission recently estimated that 3,000 pounds of softshell turtles are flown out of Tampa International Airport every week, enroute to food markets in Asia.

According to data collected by the CBD, turtle harvesting has increased dramatically over the past decade. Harvesters in Iowa, for example, collected 235,000 pounds of turtles in 2007, up more than 800 percent from the 29,000 pounds collected in 1987. In Arkansas, nearly 600,000 turtles were collected between 2004 and 2006.

While some freshwater species are endangered in the U.S., protection is difficult since many species look similar to untrained eyes. Alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temmickii), which are protected by state law in Iowa and Illinois, look almost exactly like common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), which are not endangered.

So why is turtle collection from the wild such a problem? "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," the CBD said in a statement.

Would banning the wild-turtle trade help? Supporters of such a move point to Texas as an example. The state outlawed most turtle harvesting two years ago, and as a result saw Asian exports through Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport drop from 122,610 turtles in 2004 to just 8,882 in 2007, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service numbers cited by the Dallas Morning News. Commercial harvesting of three turtle species from private waters is still allowed under Texas law.

Images: Turtle soup and Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temmickii), both via Wikipedia





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  1. 1. karl 3:42 pm 03/30/2009

    sad to see that mankind’s voracity is threatening a group of animals that have outlived Dinosaurs and the ice age!

    I wonder if it was possible to create turtle ranches (favoring short lived non threatened species for harvesting and/or protecting those that are long lived or reproduce too slowly, increasing their population artificially)

    Link to this
  2. 2. Eric Mills 6:34 pm 07/23/2009

    We need a Federal ban to stop all commerce in freshwater turtles. We’re on the verge of losing an entire family of animals, and for what? Soup and superstition.

    Here in California we’ve had some 25 necropsies done on the market turtles (mostly sliders and softshells, non-natives all). They’re ALL diseased and/or parasitized: E.coli, salmonella, pasturella (all potentially fatal in humans), blood parasites, giardia, even one case of malaria. Where’s the Health Dept., pray? Must profits always trump morality, ethics and the environment?

    The cruelty is horrendous. The animals are stacked four and five deep without either food or water. The market turtles and frogs are routinely butchered while fully conscious. Stop this ugly business. Now.

    Sincerely,
    Eric Mills, coordinator
    ACTION FOR ANIMALS
    Oakland, CA

    Link to this

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