WASHINGTON D.C.––The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the October 29, 2014 edition of the Federal Register proposed to list the common snapping turtle, Florida softshell turtle, smooth softshell turtle and spiny softshell turtle on Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Created by the United Nations, CITES is a 179-nation covenant made to keep endangered and threatened species out of commerce that might threaten their existence. An Appendix III listing means that a permit is required to trade in the species. An Appendix II listing is the international equivalent of “threatened species” protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. An Appendix I listing means the species is internationally endangered.
Published on the same day that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed that African lions be added to the U.S. “threatened species” list, the proposed CITES listing for snapping turtles and softshell turtles went largely unnoticed by mass media, but the turtle species might actually be at greater risk because turtle populations, hunting, and trafficking have until now barely been monitored.
All four turtle species proposed for CITES listing have persisted for more than 90 million years, but only recently have appeared to be in potential jeopardy.
Hunted for export to Asia
“Freshwater turtles and tortoises are collected, traded and utilized in overwhelming numbers,” said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spokesperson Vanessa Kauffman. “Bringing these turtle species under CITES protection will allow the Service to better monitor international trade, determine the legality of exports and, in consultation with state wildlife agencies and other experts, decide whether additional conservation efforts are needed.
“While none of the four turtle species proposed for protection is currently in danger of extinction,” Kauffman added, “the global trade in turtles in the last 20-plus years has followed a boom-and-bust cycle whereby a sought-after species is depleted in the wild or regulated, causing trade to shift to other species. International trade in turtles is most common in Asia,” Kauffman said, “with well-established legal and illegal trade networks supplying markets in East Asia, principally in China.
“This proposed rule,” Kauffman finished, “follows the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES, where the U.S. collaborated with China and Viet Nam to increase protection for a number of Asian freshwater turtles. In total, three native turtle species and 44 species of Asian freshwater turtles received increased CITES protection.”
Turtle farming doesn’t help
Depletion of wild turtle stocks throughout Southeast Asia has been followed by rapidly intensified hunting pressure on U.S. turtle species.
Snapping turtles, slow to mature and reproduce, but able to live 100 years or longer, occur throughout the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains and in southern Canada.
“Although a significant proportion of these live specimens and meat originated from turtle farms, “ the Federal Register notice said, “the level of wild harvest necessary to maintain farm production is unknown.”
Turtles are “farmed” almost exclusively by removing eggs from the wild before natural predators find them and hatching them in captivity. At least one “turtle farmer” has been convicted of using a permit to collect turtles and eggs for breeding as cover for exporting turtles to China. David Feltenberger, 51, owner of the Big Lake Fish Farm II “turtle aquaculture facility” in Okeechobee, Florida, was in September 2012 sentenced to serve 90 days in prison, 90 days under house arrest, three years on probation, and perform 250 hours of community service. Feltenberger was also fined $20,000. Feltenberger had possessed permits allowing him to legally collect more than 15,000 turtles.
“While export levels vary from year to year,” the Federal Register notice continued, “since at least 1990 the trend has been a significant increase in common snapping turtle exports over an extended period of time.”
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service data indicates that 811,717 live common snapping turtles were exported from the U.S. in 2011, up from 655,549 in 2009.
During the same years, live Florida softshell turtle exports jumped from 214,787 to 367,629, while Florida softshell turtle egg exports nearly doubled, from 67,200 to 130,624.
Florida softshell turtle eggs “are vulnerable to predation by a variety of terrestrial species,” the Federal Register notice explained, “and hatchlings are equally vulnerable to predation by other turtles, birds, and fish. Adults are less vulnerable, but may be taken by alligators. The species is considered vulnerable to overcollection for human consumption, the impact of predation magnified as a result of human activity, e.g., by cats, dogs, and raccoons, habitat destruction, and road mortality, and as by-catch from freshwater fishing. While in Florida the species does not appear to be in danger,” the Federal Register notice assessed, “it is the most intensively harvested freshwater turtle in Florida, and locally severe declines or extirpations from over-fishing might be possible.”
Smooth softshell turtles and spiny softshell turtles are not currently hunted or exported in large numbers, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service data, though the Federal Register notice mentions that “In recent years, smooth softshell turtle populations have declined due to river channelization, siltation, and water pollution.”
Both smooth softshell turtles and spiny softshell turtles could become jeopardized if the intensified hunting pressure on other softshell turtles carries over to them.
The Center for Biodiversity estimated that U.S. turtle hunters and traffickers were already selling more than two million turtles per year taken from the wild as of 2008. In 2009 the Center for Biodiversity identified 12 states as having regulations insufficient to protect wild freshwater turtles from overhunting: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
Oklahoma, Florida, and South Carolina subsequently reinforced their regulation of turtle hunting, as did Alabama, which the Center for Biodiversity believed was already a leader in turtle protection.
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