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Group files petition to halt commercial harvest of turtles

Group files petition to halt commercial harvest of turtles

October 28th, 2017 by Jim Williamson in Texarkana News

This young red-eared slider turtle was found in Crittendon County, Ark. (Thomas R. Machnitzki/Wikimedia Commons)

Nature and commercial turtle trackers have made life difficult for turtles.

A herpetologist with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission agrees with some environmental groups saying Arkansas turtles need to be protected.

But it's difficult to protect turtles because of the natural attacks.

All turtle species are fair game, said Kelly Irwin, herpetologist for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

The feral hog population continues to grow and the threats to the turtle life also increases.

Another aspect on the life of turtles has been the attack of fire ants on the nesting sites.

The turtles have also been attacked by raccoons, Irwin said.

"It's a natural pressure on turtles," he said.

An environmental group recently petitioned the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to end unlimited commercial collection of the state's wild turtles.

But the commercial harvest by turtle trackers has been diminishing.

East Asian countries have continued to increase their own markets by growing turtles thus reducing the harvest of U.S. turtles

The petitions will go to the Game & Fish Commission staff for review and then consider whether to send the petition to its public oversight board.

"Arkansas' precious turtles shouldn't be sacrificed so a few trappers can make a quick buck," said Elise Bennett, who is a reptile and amphibian staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. "It's time for the state to adopt common-sense measures to protect its turtles from unchecked exploitation."

Arkansas turtle trappers can legally collect unlimited numbers of 14 types of turtles to sell domestically or export to Asian food, pet and medicinal markets, according to a national organization the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Arkansas allows turtle harvesting from waters across roughly half the state, including the entirety of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. According to Arkansas Game and Fish Commission harvest report records, 126,381 freshwater turtles were harvested from 2014 to 2016," two-thirds of them being taken from only five counties, Bennett said.

Turtle harvesting is legal in Miller and Lafayette counties, but not in Little River, Sevier or Hempstead counties, she said.

"Harvesting is also allowed in the Red River (from Louisiana to the Oklahoma-Texas state line) and the Little River (from its mouth to the Corps of Engineers boat ramp on the west bank of the river below Millwood Lake Dam), even though they run through counties where turtle trapping is illegal. Private landowners can get special permits to harvest turtles on their land, even in states were trapping is illegal," Bennett said in a telephone interview.

"The turtle harvesting records I have, do not mention any lawful harvest of wild turtles from counties near Texarkana, but that does not necessarily mean harvesting is not occurring there," Bennett said.

"Turtle harvesters self-report, and if any unlawful harvesting is occurring, those poaches certainly aren't reporting it to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Based on records of self-reported, lawful harvest the heaviest harvesting occurs in counties closer to the Mississippi River," she said.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission records for 2014-2016 showed the counties with the highest harvest reports were Mississippi (31,700 turtles), Greene (15,768), Desha (12,793), Craighead (12,711), and Poinsett (11,436).

"In the end, there is no reasonable purpose for allowing unlimited commercial turtle harvest in any area in Arkansas because turtles are very sensitive to harvest pressure, and their numbers can plummet from even moderate harvest. We're hopeful Arkansas will join other states that have ended commercial turtle harvest to protect our wild turtles," Bennett said.

Scientists have repeatedly documented that freshwater turtles cannot sustain any significant level of wild collection without population-level impacts and declines. For example, a study of common snapping turtles demonstrated that a modest harvest pressure of 10 percent per year for 15 years could result in a 50 percent reduction in population size. And an Arkansas study found that turtles from populations in heavily harvested areas were significantly smaller than those from areas where harvesting is not permitted, she said.

"Unlimited commercial turtle harvesting is bad for our rivers and bad for Arkansas," said Glen Hooks, director of the Arkansas Sierra Club. "The science clearly points to the need to protect our state's delicate resources. We call on our Arkansas wildlife regulators to join other states in our region and end this practice immediately."

"The wholesale exploitation of aquatic turtle populations in Arkansas threatens the health of our water bodies," said Cindy Franklin, president of the Audubon Society of Central Arkansas. "Aquatic turtles, from formidable snapping turtles to diminutive map turtles, serve an important purpose as the principal scavengers of our aquatic ecosystems. Without turtles to consume dead fish and debris on the bottoms of our waterways, water quality can decline and become unpleasant for wildlife and people alike."

"Historically, Arkansas had one of the highest levels of aquatic biodiversity in the nation, but that abundance is rapidly declining because our native species are not protected," said Debbie Doss, director at Arkansas Watertrails Partnership. "Arkansas' second largest economic engine is tourism, and much of that tourism depends on opportunities for wildlife viewing here in 'The Natural State.' Turtles are popular on our water trails and can always be counted on to put in an appearance. But now we are seeing fewer and fewer turtle species on our rivers. The last thing we need is to have our diversity raided from the outside. I hope we will do the right thing and ban the taking of these special creatures."

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