Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Exports to Asia threatening turtle population The Missouri Department of Conservation is considering restricting the commercial harvest of three wild turtle species in the state due to concerns the practice is lowering population numbers. – via Herp Digest

By Margaret Slayton News-Press Now 7/1/17

The Missouri Department of Conservation is considering restricting the commercial harvest of three wild turtle species in the state due to concerns the practice is lowering population numbers.

Jeff Briggler, resource scientist, said the changes will reflect concerns that more turtles are being removed from the landscape than is sustainable for the species. Most turtles in the United States are shipped overseas as part of international trade. The turtles are often sold to Asia for consumption and they are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Due to a decline in turtles in Asia, there has been increased exports into China from the United States. Between 2002 and 2012 there were around 126 million turtles exported out of the country. The turtles came from both commercial breeding turtle farms and the wild. Adult turtles are also taken from the wild to breed hatchlings for the international pet trade.

Briggler said biological restraints prevent turtle populations from being able to rebound after more than a 7 percent annual harvest rate. He said turtles have long life spans and most can reach over 30 years of age. However, adults don’t breed until they are 10 years old and most species produce less than 30 eggs at one time. A small percentage of those eggs survive to hatch due to predators such as raccoons. If a turtle survives to reach adulthood, they are often protected by their shell and death from predators drops.

“Adult turtles are the most important individuals for population stability,” Briggler said. “They don’t have the means to compensate for harvest.”

Briggler said flooding of rivers and waterways also decreases the number of turtles that hatch in a given year.

He said literature from studies suggests removing 10 percent of the snapping turtle population will result in 50 percent reduction in the species within 15 years. A second study indicates that removing more than 7 percent of the population would require a 234 percent increase in egg production by all females for there to be a stable population.

“You’re not going to see that increase because they don’t have the capacity to double it,” Briggler said.

He said turtle populations are slower at reproducing than big game animals that are hunted. In the time period that a snapping turtle lays their first set of eggs, a whitetail deer has produced an average of 912 offspring.

Missouri regulations allow commercial and sport harvest of common snapping turtles, smooth softshell turtles and spiny softshell turtles.

For sport harvest, a fishing license is required. Common snapping turtles can be taken throughout the year and both softshell turtles can be taken from July 1 to Dec. 31. There is a daily limit of five common snapping turtles and five softshell turtles in total.

Commercial harvest requires a commercial fishing license and the department has around 235 individuals each year that purchase the permits. They are restricted to certain waterways but there is no daily limit and no season limits.

The conservation department and the University of Missouri conducted a two-year pilot research project to estimate how much of the turtle population might be removed each year under their current regulations for commercial harvest.

The study estimated there was a removal of 21 percent of snapping turtles within their sample size, there were 16 percent of smooth softshell removed and 33 percent of the spiny softshell turtle were removed. There was an overall average of 23 percent of the population removed within their sample size.

He said surrounding states have ended commercial turtle harvest including Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska and Kansas. Since 2009, six states have ended the practice and six have become more restrictive than Missouri.

In August 2016, the conservation department was petitioned by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Great River Law Center to end unlimited commercial harvest. In November, over 100 turtle biologists wrote support for ending the trade. The department has also received two other global petitions with thousands of signatures.

In response, the conservation department mailed opinion surveys to 300 Missouri stakeholders including around 281 commercial fish permit holders and 25 conservation groups. They also sent surveys to anyone that reported turtle harvest in the last five years for feedback.

New rules on commercial harvest proposed by the department will be published on the Missouri Register on Oct. 2. and there will be a 30 day public comment period.

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