Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Shameful Shell Games Continue (Via Herp Digest)

The Shameful Shell Games Continue
by David S. Lee The Tortoise Reserve PO Box 7082 White Lake, NC 27614
Originally printed in the CHS Bulletin 45(12) 2010 Pg.185-186

It's like a perpetual game of Whack-A-Mole, but with ever advancing levels of play

Red-eared sliders are the most frequently sold turtle in the pet trade, due largely to their bright colors. By the 1960s there were over 150 turtle farms operating in the United States. Currently there are 80 turtle farms in Louisiana alone, where they represent a $9.4 million a year industry. In most cases these farms are not self-sufficient, and thousands of additional adult sliders are removed from the wild each year to replace senile breeding stock. This ongoing practice has seriously depleted native populations in many areas of the south. In the mid-1970s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the U.S. sales of turtles under four inches because they found the turtles often transmitted salmonella to small children (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Vol. 8:21CFR1240.62). This was at first devastating to the turtle farmers. Their solution was twofold: overseas sales, and finding markets in the U.S. in states where the regulations were not well enforced. For almo!
st every subsequent attempt at regulation of the industry there was a successful countermove by the farms or the dealers. Today over 200,000 farmed pet turtles continue to be sold in this country each year, and nearly 10 million are shipped to inter- national pet markets.

And to keep it interesting a U.S. senator is attempting to push new legislation to reopen the market for red-eared sliders in the U.S. The bill has already passed the senate and if it goes through the unintended effect will be the mass marketing of turtles in addition to the ones hatched on turtle farms. Eggs taken from the wild will be hatched and the young will be sold in any number of venues: street vendors, pet shops, tourist shops, roadside stands, and of course over the Internet. With this proposed law, imports of turtles hatched from eggs dug up in the wild will enter the U.S. as they will no longer need to reach four inches in length prior to shipment. Countries requir- ing imported or exported turtles to be captive-bred will be swamped with requests for permits to sell "captive-bred" turtles. CITES regulations will be tested to their limits as exporting countries ship boxes of various protected species as "captive- bred." Dropping the 4-inch requirement for import a!
nd sales in the U.S. will have conservation consequences for many species of turtles in many countries.

In addition to the health issues and the devastation of native turtle populations as turtle farms' breeding stock was continu- ally replaced, the commercial trade has resulted in large num- bers of turtles being released into areas where they do not natu- rally occur. These sliders unfortunately are one of the most adaptable of turtles. Having a wide ecological tolerance, by the early 1960s they were becoming established as permanent self- sustaining populations throughout the country. With the shift to overseas markets, these turtles also became established globally.

They are on every continent and subcontinent except Antarctica, and even islands like New Zealand, the Bahamas and Cuba now support feral populations of red-eared sliders.

Biologists in European nations soon discovered that the exotic sliders were competing with their native turtles. Not just food but even basking space was important. Researchers dem- onstrated that European pond turtles when unable to bask, due to displacement from sunning sites by sliders, could not process food, had decreased growth rates, and became even less capable of competing with the aggressive sliders. When the European Union banned the importation of red-eared sliders, the turtle farmers circumvented this and crossbred them with yellow- bellied sliders and shipped their customized, genetically de- signed young turtles to Europe.

Florida recently stopped the sale of red-eared sliders because released pet turtles were becoming established and were compet- ing with native species, so the turtle farms stocked up on differ- ent species to produce young turtles for the market. Over time they too will become problems. As of 1 July 2007, red-eared sliders could no longer be sold in Florida, and after 1 January 2008, it became illegal for non-licensed people to have a red- eared slider smaller than four inches in carapace length. The intent of this regulation was entirely different from that of the federal one. Florida considered red-reared sliders to be injuri- ous wildlife, and became concerned about the numbers of dis- carded pet turtles being released into the state's aquatic systems. Many states have injurious wildlife laws, but Florida is to be applauded for their use of these laws to take a stand against the commercial sales of red-eared sliders. The IUCN lists this turtle among the 100 most dangerous!
exotic animals in the world, and many countries are now recognizing the red-eared slider as injurious wildlife. Vietnam this year required a turtle farm in that country to return a shipment of 40 tons of red-eared sliders to the U.S.

I was in Daytona Beach this July and visited a few tourist- focused gift shops along A1A. Besides the tables of T-shirts, racks of bikinis, postcards, knickknacks, seashells, dried starfish and seahorses, and live hermit crabs there were sales displays of "Live Baby Turtles." The turtles all appeared to be fresh-out-of- the-egg hatchlings, though none had an "egg tooth." I wondered if these were mostly last season's hatchlings, held dormant in refrigeration for 9 months or so to be ready for the early summer tourist market, a time prior to when the 2010 hatchlings would be emerging from their eggs. If so, this is a shame, as most, though seemingly healthy now, would succumb to organ failure in the months to come. The turtles were not red-eared sliders, they were combinations of hieroglyphic river cooters and crosses of red-eared and yellow-bellied sliders. A few individu- als would be hard to distinguish from pure red-ears, but thus the shops like those in Europe were getting around the ban on red-ear sales. In fact they weren't sales at all; one needed to purchase turtle set-ups---units of various sizes starting at $18.50 apiece. Technically no turtles were being sold; they were simply given away. The shops assumed there was no regulation against giving the turtles away, so buy the container and other turtle paraphernalia and you get a free turtle. Not a bad business plan considering that the wholesale purchase price of the turtles is about 40-50 cents each. So, what's next, $45 condoms and a cute gal who will show you how they are installed and used free of charge?

The potential ecological impact on native Florida turtles and other wildlife is not only just as bad, but has been increased because of the river cooters. Now there are two genera of introduced turtles Florida needs to be concerned about. While I did not see any map turtles for sale that day, they are another concern, one that can easily slip through the Florida regulations as now written.

Based on the hybrid swarms of hatchling map turtles produced and sold by turtle farmers we know that Grapt- emys readily hybridize. Considering the overall range of the genus, and the number of endemic range-limited species of conservation concern occurring along the Gulf Coast, the poten- tial for released pet map turtles to destroy the genetic integrity of a number of species is high. And keep in mind the resulting problems are not restricted to Florida. These turtles are being sold at vacation destinations and will be widely dispersed by visiting tourists. What becomes of the hatching turtles when they out grow their store-purchased habitats, or live past the point that they are of interest to the children for whom they were purchased? These hatchlings will show up in creeks, ponds and lakes all over the eastern United States. And it has started. This summer a false map turtle was found in Maryland---a released pet trade turtle, one that could hybridize with the state's native common map turtle, a species of conservation concern. Yet, they can be sold legally in that state because they are not a native species.

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for more than a decade has turned a blind eye to enforcement of state and federal regula- tions on the sale of hatchling red-eared sliders. I and others have documented a steady input of unwanted sliders turned into reptile rescue centers and dumped into aquatic systems from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. Owners forfeiting red-eared sliders to rescue groups invariably say they were purchased in gift shops in Myrtle Beach. Near major cities in central North Carolina it is almost impossible to find native yellow-bellied sliders without some amount of red on their necks and heads from intergradation with the introduced turtles from the pet trade. Additionally we are now seeing the creative marketing of farmed turtles. The turtle farms can create turtles that will be under the radar of states with laws prohibiting sales of specific taxa, and ones not allowing sales of any native species. The hybrids lack true names and technically are not native to!
any state. The possibility of new designer turtles was not considered by the agencies writing the regulations. And the take-home message is that our federal government is not concerned if salmonella infected turtles are sold outside the United States and cause health issues for children in other nations. Florida turtlefarms are still allowed to breed and sell red-eared sliders outside of the state. Are they unconcerned with the ecological havoc that released pets could cause in other parts of the nation? What about the pollution of aquatic systems shared with states adja- cent to Florida?

While many people recognize the problems with simply releasing pets into a local lake, their options are limited. Reptile rescue centers are saturated with unwanted pet red-eared sliders. Each year I turn down several dozen requests from people wanting to find homes for their fast-growing pet sliders. I try to forward them on to people who are into turtle rescues and re- homing them, but most groups will no longer take red-eared sliders. Okay, here is how desperate it is: a decade or so back a consortium of turtle rescue groups got together and found a turtle farm in south Florida willing to take unwanted red-eared sliders. The people shipping the turtles were all well aware that their sliders were going into breeding ponds and the young from these turtles were being put back out on the market. Sort of a circular humanitarian effort I suppose.

Despite a number of exemptions and loopholes it would seem that existing federal statutes would prohibit sales of turtles under four inches to the general public. Selling enclosures with a free baby turtle, while a somewhat of a gray area, would still constitute illegal "public distribution. . . in connection with a business." In the past dealers have tried putting signs over their live turtle displays saying "sales for educational purposes only" but the FDA does not recognize this as a legitimate loophole. The penalties can be considerable: " . . . shall be subject to a fine of not more than $1,000 or imprisonment for not more than 1 year, or both, for each violation, in accordance with section 368 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 217). More consistent enforcement is needed.

So the overriding question is why can't even seemingly straightforward wildlife regulations be written so that their enforcement can be clearly interpreted while retaining their original intent? Commercial interests are quick to find soft spots in the regulations of various agencies, and they seemingly have most new regulations circumvented by the time they go into effect. For example, Florida allows sales of "color-morphs" such as albino and pastel red-ears in the belief that people will not be releasing the high priced captive-bred strains into the wild. I wonder if the genetically blind red-ears offered for sale by a turtle dealer who advertises on the Internet and in Reptiles magazine, also qualify as high-end stock? Agency response time, reevaluation of the problem, and drafting and passing revised regulations, even when the problems are addressed, take years. And these are just the sales shop issues; think of what is transpiring over the Internet. Or better yet, take a look. Who is regulating that? It is interesting to see that everyone can get behind conservation initiatives that take aim at direct threats to high profile native wildlife. Killing whales or wolves gets attention, yet indirect threats like habitat loss and the introduc- tion of invasive species, while often of far greater consequence than many of the direct issues, are generally met with compla- cency both by the public and by government agencies.

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