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For Immediate Release, January 25, 2012

Contact: Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681

Georgia Reins In Harvest of Freshwater Turtles

New Regs Still Don't Go Far Enough to Safeguard Wild Turtle Populations

ATLANTA— The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board of Directors today unanimously approved its first-ever state rules regulating the commercial collection of wild freshwater turtles. Georgia had been the only state in the Southeast without limitations on harvest or regulations on the export, farming and sale of native freshwater turtles. The new rules help address population declines of native southern turtle populations caused by unregulated harvest and export for international food markets.

“Georgia is clamping down on the unrestrained strip-mining of native turtles to supply food markets in Asia,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, which in 2008 sought a ban on commercial turtle collecting in Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas. “The new regulations are a welcome step but don’t go far enough to protect wild turtles, since the harvest limits are far above what’s sustainable.”

Turtle traders in the United States catch and export more than 2 million wild-caught freshwater turtles each year, mostly to supply food and medicinal markets in Asia, where soaring turtle consumption rates have decimated the native turtles. Turtles sold as food can be contaminated with mercury, PCBs, and pesticides. Adult turtles are also taken from the wild to breed hatchlings for the international pet trade. This unsustainable harvest is rapidly depleting native turtle populations already suffering from other threats like habitat loss, water pollution and road mortality. The Southeast became a hotspot of turtle harvest due to large turtle diversity and lack of state regulations on harvest.

“Georgia’s previous wildlife laws treated native turtles not protected by state or federal law as no better than pests, so this is an improvement,” said Miller. “However, lax limits and exemptions will be exploited by commercial harvesters profitably exporting turtles to Asia. A ban on commercial harvest is needed to fully protect turtles, and the potential health risks of consuming turtles contaminated with toxins need to be addressed.”

The new regulations set annual catch limits of 100 turtles per year for the Florida softshell turtle, spiny softshell turtle and river cooter; 300 per year for the common snapping turtle, painted turtle, eastern mud turtle and loggerhead musk turtle; and 500 per year for the pond slider. There is no possession limit for freshwater turtles, but anyone who harvests more than 10 turtles at a time needs a commercial turtle permit issued by the Department of Natural Resources. Collecting freshwater turtle eggs from the wild is now prohibited, as is importing live native freshwater turtles or eggs from another state unless they were lawfully acquired in that state. The permits will require the reporting of harvest numbers and species trapped.

“With extremely high catch allowed and no limit on the number of permits, the Department of Natural Resources can provide no assurances that turtle harvest will be sustainable, since turtles have low reproductive and survival rates,” said Miller. “There are several troublesome exemptions, and enforcement depends on a self-reporting system with no mechanism for ensuring that harvesters even stay within those limits.”

Exemptions allow issuance of “catch-out” authorizations that exempt all harvest limits for private ponds, let permit holders take twice the annual quota for two years to expand turtle farms and give “nuisance wildlife” permits to posses more than 10 turtles for up to 72 hours. Other problems are the potential for incidental deaths of non-target protected turtle species that overlap with more common species in hoopnet traps, the difficulty of effectively enforcing the limits and the inability of trappers and law enforcement to distinguish protected species from those legal to harvest (such as distinguishing alligator snappers from common snappers and Barbour’s map turtles from pond sliders and river cooters).

Of the 19 species of freshwater turtles native to Georgia, six (the Alabama map turtle, alligator snapping turtle, Barbour’s map turtle, bog turtle, common map turtle and spotted turtle) were already protected from harvest by federal or state laws before the new rules were approved. Although eight species are now subject to new catch limits, five species (the chicken turtle, common musk turtle, Florida cooter, Florida red-bellied cooter and striped mud turtle) are not protected at all.

In 2005 Georgia discussed the need for turtle regulations in the state wildlife management plan, but took no action. As other Southeastern states began lowering catch limits and tightening up harvest regulations, turtle trappers moved into Georgia to take advantage of its lack of harvest rules. In 2008, the Center for Biological Diversity and Georgia conservation groups petitioned for a ban on commercial turtle harvest in all public and private waters, but the Department of Natural Resources claimed it lacked authority.

The Center has also petitioned to list several species of imperiled freshwater turtles under the Endangered Species Act and filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting steps to end unsustainable international trade in freshwater turtles through protections under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Flora and Fauna 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.

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