Unregulated commercial collection of freshwater turtles in southern and midwestern states is depleting native turtle populations, including those of rare map turtle species that may already be at risk of extinction. Freshwater turtles — called “terrapins” — are long living and slow growing, and they have low reproductive and survival rates. They’re also facing increasing and unsustainable commercial harvest in the South and Midwest to supply food markets in Southeast Asia, as well as the pet industry. Removing even a few adults from the wild can cause population crashes for freshwater turtles, so large-scale collection is an added threat for turtle species already suffering from loss of important nesting areas, water pollution, and road mortality.
Unsustainable numbers of turtles are being captured from the wild in states that don’t have adequate harvest regulations. More than a quarter-million wild-caught turtles were exported from a single airport in Texas between 2002 and 2005. Recent surveys by herpetologists show depletions and even extirpations of freshwater turtles — especially map turtle species — from many streams in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri and Oklahoma. Southern map turtles are drainage specific: Each watershed that drains into the Gulf of Mexico produces a brilliant, unique geophysical coloration and pattern on map turtles’ shells and skin. Many map turtles in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia warrant federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
In an early win for imperiled freshwater turtles, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department voted to end commercial harvest of freshwater turtles in public waters after a 2007 petition by conservation groups to ban all commercial harvest; unfortunately Texas continued to allow unlimited commercial harvest of seven species from private waters — just one of many states whose lax (or lack of) regulations the Center would go on to challenge.
In fact, the Center has submitted regulatory petitions to every state in the United States that still allows unrestricted commercial turtle harvest or that has inadequate harvest regulations for freshwater turtles. The petitions ask for harvest regulations to prevent further depletions of native turtle populations — as well as to protect public health, since freshwater turtles collected in these states and sold as food are often contaminated with mercury, PCBs, and other toxins and pollutants. The Center has activated a coalition of more than 20 conservation and health groups on the issue.
In 2008 we petitioned Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Texas to ban commercial harvest of all native freshwater turtles. Oklahoma enacted a three-year moratorium on commercial harvest from public waters while studying the status of its wild turtle populations. Florida is considering finalizing a proposal that would ban most commercial turtle harvest in private and public waters and Georgia issued its first-ever harvest regulations in 2012. We also petitioned the Texas Department of Health in 2008 to ban commercial turtle harvest from private waters in Texas. In 2009 the Center, along with local groups from each state, petitioned wildlife and health agencies in Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee for a ban on commercial harvest of freshwater turtles. Tennessee is not expected to change harvest regulations, and Louisiana denied our petition in January 2017, but earlier, in July 2016, Iowa wildlife officials proposed regulations to restrict collection and killing of common snapping turtles, painted turtles, spiny softshells and smooth softshells. We (and Great Rivers Environmental Law Center) petitioned the Missouri Department of Conservation to end commercial wild-turtle collection again in August 2016.
Most recently, in May 2017 the Center and several Texas-based conservation organizations petitioned the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to end commercial trapping of the state’s wild common snapping turtles, red-eared sliders, smooth softshells and spiny softshells. Earlier that month we joined with several Ohio-based conservation organizations to (again) petition Ohio to end unchecked commercial collection of that state’s wild turtles as well.
Currently the Center has determined that nine unprotected southern turtle species may warrant federal Endangered Species Act listing, and we’re conducting status reviews for potential listing petitions. We joined with allies to petition for the Barbour’s map turtle in 2010; the next year the Service determined that the turtle “may warrant” protection as an endangered species, but it failed to take the next required step (a 12-month finding on whether protection is warranted), so we filed a lawsuit to address that issue in September 2012. Some of our earliest turtle-protection work included our 2004 petition to list the Cagle’s map turtle, a rare riverine turtle that survives only in the Guadalupe River system in Texas — a species placed on the federal candidate list in 1977 but still without federal protection.
We’ve also filed a petition and activated our membership to request protections under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Flora and Fauna (CITES) for 20 species of native freshwater turtles — the alligator snapping turtle, spotted turtle, Blanding’s turtle, diamondback terrapin, three species of soft-shell turtles and 13 species of map turtles.