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NC Press: Trapped by popularity - taken by thousands

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Posted by W von Papinešu on April 21, 2003 at 09:26:05:

In Reply to: NC Press: Turtles trapped - House moves to protect reptiles posted by W von Papinešu on April 19, 2003 at 07:52:35:

NEWS & OBSERVER (Raleigh, N Carolina) 21 April 03 Trapped by popularity - N.C. turtles are being taken by the thousands, a new trend that alarms wildlife officials (Wade Rawlins)
Call Sammy Strange the king of the turtles.
Last year, the Louisiana turtle farmer trapped 17,000 turtles in North Carolina, all for the price of one $5 permit. He also hauled 30,000 live turtles out of South Carolina in a cattle trailer.
"I'm a turtle man," said Strange, whose family has been farming turtles in Jonesville, La., for 60 years. "As long as I can get a license, I'm going to chase them as hard as I can. I ain't leaving there until I have my truck and trailer loaded."
Just as ambition undermined Yertle, the king of the turtles in Dr. Seuss' book, the ambition of Strange and other trappers to take as many turtles as possible from North Carolina's rivers and streams could destroy the turtle population, wildlife officials say.
International market demand has increased the number of turtles taken in North Carolina -- from a few hundred in 2000 to more than 23,000 last year. That has state wildlife administrators alarmed.
Strange and other trappers are casting nets primarily for the yellow-bellied slider, a pond turtle often seen basking on logs. It is the current hot property in the international reptile trade. Female yellow-bellied sliders bring $5 apiece, Strange said. He raises the turtles in ponds, incubates their eggs, then ships the hatchlings overseas to be sold as pets and to be consumed as food.
"That is the turtle with the biggest demand in America," said Strange, who ships turtles all over the world. "That is the reason everybody is coming up there to catch them. There is kind of like an explosion going on right now."
North Carolina has no regulations on commercial harvesting of freshwater turtles. Sea turtles are protected because they are listed as federally threatened and endangered.
Wildlife experts say some conservation measures are needed to preserve freshwater turtles.
A bill pending in the state legislature would give the Wildlife Resources Commission power to protect nonendangered reptiles and amphibians and to prohibit the commercial taking of certain kinds of turtles, including basking and sliding turtles, until the state can adopt rules to limit their taking. Other states, such as Mississippi and Alabama, have stopped the commercial collection of turtles in recent years.
"We are very concerned about the taking of the turtles," Dick Hamilton, deputy director of the Wildlife Resources Commission, last week told a legislative panel, which endorsed the bill.
"They can't sustain such harvest. It will lead to the destruction of the turtles."
Alvin Braswell, curator of herpetology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, said the perception that there are plenty of the turtles is misleading.
They reproduce slowly and depend on the longevity of adults to build up.
Braswell said the trappers are doing nothing illegal. But the laws themselves need reviewing.
"If they can come take our turtles and make a big buck on it, they'll do it," Braswell said. "Then they'll move on to another state."
Protecting a resource
The water is still too cold this time of year near Port Republic, N.J., to catch turtles. So trapper Newt Sterling and his little terrier, Shackle, head south in spring to work the waters of Chocowinity Bay, which flows into the Pamlico River southeast of Washington, N.C.
Sterling wants to get a head start on supplying the northeastern market with meat for snapper soup. When Sterling raises his heavy wire traps each morning and dumps them into the bottom of his boat, he will typically find 10 to 15 snappers big enough to keep.
He stows the keepers in a locker. He releases the ones weighing 10 pounds or less back into the water after making sure they are healthy. Unlike the trappers gathering the small pond turtles, he puts back more than he keeps.
"Turtles are like anything else," he says. "It's a renewable resource. You can harvest it and it will renew itself over the years."
Sterling has trapped turtles commercially along the East Coast since the 1970s. "When they start averaging less than 20 pounds apiece, it's time to move to another area," he says.
Sterling tends his traps in the morning, butchers and freezes the meat, then ships it to market in Philadelphia twice a week. He said North Carolina is virtually virgin territory for turtle trapping because it is far from the traditional markets.
"I'm down here because I have a market," Sterling said. "... The hardest thing about turtle trapping is what are you going to do with them after you catch them."
'Elite kind of food'
Whit Gibbons, a researcher at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., a research unit of the University of Georgia, said turtle meat is a status symbol in some parts of Asia, including China.
"It's sort of elite kind of food," he said.
"It serves as a statement in some situations. Everybody here likes to have lobster, don't they? In China, it's turtle."
People in China pay handsomely for the chance to eat turtle soup or turtle jelly or take folk medicines made from ground-up turtle shells, including virility potions.
The demand has depleted populations of wild turtles in parts of Asia and led to what is called the Asian turtle crisis, Gibbons said. With China's entry into international trade, turtles have become an international commodity.
"The market demand isn't going down, but the supply of turtles is going down because they are harder to find and more expensive in Asia," Gibbons said.
So trappers are harvesting species that are common in the United States.
Gibbons said that some species, such as the sliders, can be successfully farmed, but that heavy collection will deplete populations in the wild.
He said large-scale harvesting should be examined carefully.
"Why should North Carolina or any state be providing turtles to another part of the world, even to another state?" he said.
"Turtles are not a sustainable resource, the way they are being removed in high numbers."
So the Asian turtle crisis has come to North Carolina, largely in the form of a Louisiana turtle farmer.
Strange said state wildlife administrators should be concerned about the rate at which turtles are being taken.
Although it would affect his livelihood, he said part of him would like to see North Carolina restrict turtle trapping.
"You give it another three years, there aren't going to be none up there," Strange said. "It's going to be like it is around here.
"There ain't any turtles in the swamps around here, not like it should be."

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