Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, October 29, 2014

Contact:  Collette Adkins Giese, (651) 955-3821

Four Freshwater U.S. Turtles Proposed for International Trade Protection

Would Help Address Runaway Trade of U.S. Turtles for Asian Meat Markets

WASHINGTON— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to regulate and monitor international trade of common snapping turtles and three softshell turtles. The proposal, which responds in part to a 2011 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity documenting the harms of the turtle trade, is designed to curb overexploitation of these freshwater turtles for Asian food and medicinal markets. It would add the turtles to Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Common snapping turtle
Common snapping turtle photo by Dakota L. Photos are available for media use.

“I’m so pleased that the United States is taking action to save our freshwater turtles,” said the Center’s Collette Adkins Giese, a Center attorney and biologist who works to save endangered reptiles and amphibians. “Turtle traders in the United States are catching and exporting millions of wild-caught freshwater turtles each year, so close monitoring of this trade is absolutely necessary.”

Most of the more than 2 million wild-caught, live turtles exported from the United States each year supply food and medicinal markets in Asia, where native turtle populations have already been depleted by soaring consumption. Adult turtles are also taken from the wild to breed hatchlings for the international pet trade.

Overexploitation has caused population declines in almost all turtle species, with many now either protected as endangered under the Endangered Species Act or under consideration for such protection. A 2013 study estimates that half of all turtle species worldwide are threatened with extinction.

“Turtle traders are depleting U.S. populations at a frightening rate. It’s got to stop soon or we’re going to lose these incredible animals from the wild,” said Adkins Giese. “Commercial trade only compounds the problems native turtles already face from habitat destruction, water pollution and being hit and killed by cars.”

Today’s proposal would add four turtles — common snapping turtles, Florida softshell turtles, smooth softshell turtles and spiny softshell turtles — to a list called “CITES Appendix III.” Species included on this list are closely monitored and subject to mandatory reporting requirements. The animals must also be shipped using methods designed to prevent cruel treatment.

The United States is a turtle biodiversity hotspot, home to more types of turtles than any other country in the world. As part of a campaign to protect this rich natural heritage, the Center in 2008 and 2009 petitioned states with unrestricted commercial turtle harvest to improve harvest regulations. In 2009 Florida responded by banning almost all commercial harvest of freshwater turtles from public and private waters; in 2012 Georgia approved state rules regulating the commercial harvest of turtles; and Alabama completely banned commercial harvests. The Center has also petitioned to list several species of imperiled freshwater turtles under the Endangered Species Act. 

The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is a large, mostly aquatic turtle, weighing as much as 50 pounds, with strong claws, webbed toes and a hard shell often covered in mud or algae. It spends most of its time lying on the bottom of a deep pool or buried in the mud in shallow water, with only its eyes and nostrils exposed. The common snapper occurs in the eastern half of the United States, as well as in Canada, Mexico and as far south as Ecuador. The turtles are suffering slow declines in many areas from urbanization, excessive harvest for food, road mortality and water pollution. Studies have shown that some populations cannot withstand even minimal collection without suffering population declines. Common snapping turtles are second only to red-eared sliders in terms of number of live individuals exported each year.

Softshell turtles (Apalone spp.) are large aquatic turtles with flat, leathery shells. Because of their large size, these unfortunate favorites in the turtle trade are routinely harvested for food. The Florida softshell (A. ferox) is found in parts of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and throughout Florida. The smooth softshell (A. mutica) ranges from the Ohio River drainage of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; the upper Mississippi watershed from Minnesota and Wisconsin; and the Missouri River of the Dakotas south to the western Florida panhandle and west to central Texas. The spiny softshell (A. spinifera) ranges from western New York, western Pennsylvania and southern Ontario west to the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming, and south to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and the Gulf coastal states, then west to Arizona and New Mexico. Humans cause the greatest threats to softshell turtles through overharvest, habitat destruction, pollution and automobile strikes.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 800,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Go back