BATON ROGUE (News Release) - The Center for Biological Diversity and Gulf Restoration Network petitioned the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries on Wednesday to end unlimited commercial collection of the state's wild freshwater turtles. Under current laws turtle traders can legally collect unlimited numbers of 20 kinds of freshwater turtle to sell domestically or export for Asian food, medicinal and pet markets. More than 16 million turtles have been exported just from Louisiana over the past five years.
The petition asks the Department to amend its wildlife rules to prohibit this unsustainable practice; the agency has 90 days to begin the rulemaking process or deny the petition with a written explanation.
"Unfettered harvest of wild turtles encourages a race to the bottom, where traders compete to capture turtles until no more can be found," said Elise Bennett, a staff attorney at the Center who is dedicated to protecting vulnerable reptiles and amphibians. "Scientists have concluded that even modest commercial harvest of freshwater turtles can lead to population crashes. A lack of regulations essentially guarantees these results."
Under current Louisiana regulations, holders of a reptile- and amphibian-collection license may take and sell unlimited numbers of common snapping turtles, southern painted turtles, eastern and western chicken turtles, river cooters, red-eared sliders, Mississippi mud turtles, stripe-necked musk turtles, eastern musk turtles, five types of map turtles, and five types of softshell turtles with no closed season. Licensed collectors are also permitted to take unlimited numbers of the estuarine Mississippi diamondback terrapins during an open season. Aside from overharvest, freshwater turtles struggle against threats from habitat loss, water pollution, collisions with cars and global climate change.
"The incredible diversity of freshwater turtles that call the Gulf home is part of what makes our region so special, but allowing a harvesting free-for-all threatens the very survival of these species," said Raleigh Hoke, campaign director at the Gulf Restoration Network. "Other Gulf states like Florida and Alabama have already taken steps to ensure healthy populations of turtles, and Louisiana should too."
As part of a campaign to protect turtles in the United States, the Center has been successfully petitioning states that allow unrestricted commercial turtle collection to improve harvest regulations. In 2009 Florida responded by banning almost all commercial collection of freshwater turtles from public and private waters. In 2012 Georgia approved state rules regulating the commercial collection of turtles, and Alabama completely banned commercial collection.
More than 17 million wild-caught, live turtles were exported from the United States over the past five years to supply food and medicinal markets in Asia, where native turtle populations have already been depleted by voracious consumption. Because turtles bioaccumulate toxins from prey, and many burrow themselves in contaminated sediment, turtle meat is often laced with mercury, PCBs and pesticides, posing a health risk. Adult turtles are also taken from the wild to breed hatchlings for the international pet trade.
Life-history characteristics such as delayed sexual maturity, dependence on high adult survival, and high natural levels of nest mortality make turtles vulnerable to rapid declines from exploitation. Scientists have repeatedly documented that freshwater turtles cannot sustain any significant level of wild collection without population declines.
In response to a 2011 Center petition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added four turtles - including common snapping turtles, smooth softshell turtles and spiny softshell turtles, which are found in Louisiana - to a list called "CITES Appendix III." Trade in Appendix III species requires an export permit and documentation that the animal was caught or acquired in compliance with the law, allowing the United States to monitor trade closely. The animals must also be shipped using methods designed to prevent
cruel treatment. These rules go into effect for the four turtle species on Nov. 21.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Gulf Restoration Network is a network of environmental, social justice, and citizens' groups and individuals committed to empowering people to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico for future generations.
** Full petition posted in the related documents section of this story. **