For my master’s thesis I am studying the trade of freshwater turtles and tortoises in food and pet markets in southern China. While this work might seem to concern far away conservation issues and exotic species, the reality is that the impact of these markets hits much closer to home. Due to increasing demand in Asia, combined with already exploited Asian turtle populations, the United States has emerged as a key supplier of turtles to the Asian market. In fact, the demand for turtles on the other side of the world is so strong that it has led to a booming aquaculture industry in the southeastern US. Unfortunately, despite substantial commercial farming operations, there is still rampant harvesting of wild turtles in the region for export.
In order to gain a better understanding of the United States’ role in the international turtle trade and the pressure it is placing on wild populations, a recent paper published in PLoS ONE by Mali et al. analyzed US turtle exports over 2002-2012. The purpose of the study was to examine long-term export volume trends and to characterize the source of the turtles, with particular attention to wild-caught individuals. The paper also includes an overview of the harvesting regulations by state in the turtle-rich Southeastern US, exploring how changes in these regulations since 2007 might be impacting the trade.
The overall trends reveal some big numbers with more than 126 million live turtles shipped out of the US over the study period, including 24 million wild-caught turtles. While there was a slight decline in total exports over the decade analyzed, the number of wild-caught turtles actually began to increase in 2009. By state, Louisiana and California were the major players with 67% and 27%, respectively, of the total export volume.
This paper also brings to light the vast discrepancy in turtle harvest regulations by state. For instance, Alabama and Florida have recently prohibited any commercial harvest of turtles. This compares to Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi which have absolutely NO limitations on the number of turtles that can be collected. Some particularly alarming trends are seen in Louisiana, where 80,000 wild-caught turtles were exported in 2008, with the figure jumping to a staggering 6.4 million the following year and remaining elevated thereafter. The authors propose a few potential reasons for the changes seen in Louisiana: First, it is possible that the new tighter regulations in neighboring states have led to increased pressure on the unprotected populations in Louisiana. It could also be, however, that because turtle export documents only require what state the turtles are shipped from (and not where they are collected), turtles from neighboring states are being illegally harvested and exported out of Louisiana. Neither of these explanations is particularly comforting.
Figure 5 from Mali et al. (2014)
Another murky aspect of the US turtle export business discussed in the paper is the lack of clarity on where turtles are originating. The current system requires documentation of the turtles’ source whether, captive-bred, farmed, ranched or wild; however, the level of ambiguity between these definitions leaves far too much room for interpretation. For example, “ranched” turtles are taken directly from the wild and reared in a controlled environment, yet there is no designation as to how long turtles must be kept in captivity to be considered “ranched” instead of “wild.” Then there is the case of California, from where 27% of turtle exports come, and it is unclear where any of these turtles actually come from given that they are not native California species and the state does not seem to have extensive turtle farming operations.
This important paper is helping draw attention to some of the inadequate harvesting laws and potential loopholes in the US turtle export market. My hope is that this research, and future studies like it, will ultimately lead to better regulation of turtle harvesting across all states in the US as well as more informative turtle export documentation. These increased protections are crucial to ensuring that American turtle populations do not become another casualty of the Asian Turtle Crisis.
Mali, I., Vandewege, M. W., Davis, S. K., & Forstner, M. R. (2014). Magnitude of the Freshwater Turtle Exports from the US: Long Term Trends and Early Effects of Newly Implemented Harvest Management Regimes. PloS ONE, 9(1), e86478.